Friday, October 12, 2007

The Mystery Behind Israel’s Air Strike on Syria

There has been speculation of sorts as to what happened in northern Syria on 6th September 2007. Reports emanating from Syria suggested that on 6th September 2007, aircraft belonging to the Israeli Air Force (Hel HaAvir) penetrated Syrian air defenses and dropped some ordnance in a deserted area some where in the north of the country. The aircraft then fled towards the Mediterranean. Turkey, later announced that two Israeli fuel tanks had been dropped inside its territory, one in Gaziantep province and the other in the Hatay province. Dropping of the tanks by the aircraft indicates that it (or they) had come under fire from Syrian air defences and the plane dropped the tanks to increase speed and maneuverability. Apart from these sketchy details, none of the parties, Israel, Turkey or Syria came out with any official statements on the incident. The United States which was probably aware of the goings on chose to keep mum.

A few weeks after the incident, leaks from the American side hinted that the operation was something more than mere testing of Syrian air defenses or reconnaissance. The leaks from the US indicated that a shipment which had been delivered to Syria from North Korea may have contained nuclear equipment. Speculation was rife that Israel was probably preparing for an air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities and that this was a dry run. Some reports even suggested that the target of the Israeli strike was shipment of arms from Iran to the Hezbollah or a nuclear installation being constructed with North Korean assistance. Israel undertaking such a mission fraught with risk only to destroy a shipment of arms is unlikely while in the latter scenario it was only to be expected.

According to a report appearing in the Sunday Times Israeli commandos were involved in a joint operation with its air force under the direct supervision of the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The operation was targeted against “nuclear material” provided by North Korea to Syria. The operation was reminiscent of a similar attack carried out by the Israeli Air Force on the nuclear facilities on the outskirts of Baghdad[1].

On 1st October 2007, the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad acknowledged that a strike had taken place and that an unused military building was hit.

Israeli silence on the incident was understandable. But what was intriguing was the Syrian silence. Normally, Syria would have been expected to cry hoarse over the Israeli incursion and would have threatened to take the issue to the UN Security Council and other fora. The inference that can certainly be drawn is that Syria was upto something sinister and hence did not raise this issue before any international forum. What? Was it working on its own nuclear program? Was it acting as a conduit for facilitating illegal transfer of nuclear material or equipment? If so, to which country? These questions will remain unanswered for a long time to come. But the fact remains that Israel will not tolerate a nuclear Arab state in its neighbourhood. And also that it would not hesitate to use force if its very existence is threatened.

All said and done, the attack was probably to send a strong signal to the Arab states, particularly those nursing ambitions of acquiring nuclear weapons, that Israel and the US would not tolerate the induction of nuclear weapons in the conflict-prone region. The raid also served a warning to Iran that its nuclear facilities were not safe against an Israeli strike (with or without US backing) and that it should desist from going ahead with its nuclear program.

[1] Operation Opera (also known as Operation Babylon and Operation Ofra) was a surprise Israeli air strike against the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor. On 7th June 1981, a squadron of Israeli F-16A aircraft with an escort of F-15As bombed and heavily damaged the Osirak reactor. The plant, which was intended for the production of nuclear weapons, was destroyed before it became operational; had Israel waited much longer, an attack would have caused radioactive fallout in the area around Baghdad. The attack removed the nuclear threat to Israel.

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