Sunday, October 14, 2007

Mystery Behind the Israeli Raid on Syria – Operation Orchard Unveiled

In 2001, Mossad was profiling Syria's new President Bashar al-Assad. Around the same time, Aman, Israel's military intelligence directorate was closely observing visits made by North Korean officials to Syria which focussed on advance arms deliveries. Aman was of the opinion that nuclear arms were being discussed. In 2004, US intelligence picked up several communications between Syria and Pyongyang and calls were traced to a Syrian desert location called al-Kibar. Israel's Unit 8200, a unit responsible for collection of signals intelligence and code-breaking, also started keeping a close watch on this location.

In April 2004, a massive explosion on a North Korean freight train headed for the port of Namp'o alerted the Israelis. Mossad learned that dozens of Syrian nuclear technicians travelling in a compartment adjoining a sealed wagon were killed in the blast. Their bodies were flown in lead encased coffins aboard a Syrian military plane.A wide area around the explosion site was cordoned off for days as North Korean soldiers in anti-contamination suits collected wreckage and sprayed the area. Mossad analysts suspected they were trying to recover weapons-grade plutonium. Since the explosion, the Mossad tracked about a dozen trips by Syrian military officers and scientists to Pyongyang.

The Daily Telegraph, citing anonymous sources, reported that in December 2006, a top Syrian official arrived in London under a false name. The Mossad had detected a booking for the official in a London hotel, and dispatched at least ten undercover agents to London. The agents were split into three teams. One group was sent to Heathrow Airport to identify the official as he arrived, a second to book into his hotel, and a third to monitor his movements and visitors. Some of the operatives were from the Kidon Division, which specialised in assassinations, and the Negev Division, which specialised in breaking into homes, embassies, and hotel rooms to install bugging devices. On the first day of his visit, he visited the Syrian embassy and then went shopping. Kidon operatives closely followed him, while Negev operatives broke into his hotel room and found his laptop. A computer expert then installed software that allowed the Mossad to monitor his activities on the computer. When the computer material was examined at Mossad headquarters, officials found blueprints and hundreds of pictures of the al-Kibar facility in various stages of construction, and correspondence. One photograph showed a North Korean nuclear official meeting with Ibrahim Othman, Syria's atomic energy agency director. Though the Mossad had originally planned to kill the official in London, it was decided to spare his life following the discovery.

A senior U.S. official stated that, in early summer 2007, Israel had discovered a suspected Syrian nuclear facility, and that the Mossad then "managed to either co-opt one of the facility's workers or insert a spy posing as an employee" at the suspected Syrian nuclear site, and through this was able to get pictures of the target from on the ground." Two months before the strike, Israel launched the Ofek-7 spy satellite into space. The satellite was geo-positioned to watch activity at the complex. 

Intelligence and Planning:
Early in the summer, the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had ordered the doubling of Israeli forces on the Golan Heights bordering Syria in anticipation of a possible Syrian retaliation in the event of air strikes by Israel. According to American sources, Israeli intelligence tracked a North Korean vessel identified as “Al Hamed", a 1700-tonne cargo ship that was previously owned by North Korea, purported to be carrying a cargo of nuclear material labeled “cement”. The vessel registered itself as a South Korean ship when it traveled through the Suez Canal. On 28th July the vessel docked at the Syrian port of Tartous. The ship returned on 3rd September and is said to have unloaded the cargo of “cement”. The Israelis continued to keep track of the cargo as it was transported to the small town of Deir ez-Zor, in north-eastern Syria near the Turkish border. Israeli sources revealed that the Israeli satellite Ofek 7, launched in June, was redirected from Iran to Syria. The satellite sent high quality images of the north-eastern area every 90 minutes enabling the air force specialists to spot the facility. Three days after the consignment arrived, the final phase of Operation Orchard got underway. According to Sunday Times, around mid-August 2007 a team belonging to Sayarat Matkal covertly raided the suspected Syrian nuclear facility and brought soil samples and other material back to Israel. This confirmed that the cargo was nuclear. Once the material was tested and confirmed to have come from North Korea, the Israelis decided to carry out the attack.

Such was the secrecy that the target of the attack was revealed to the pilots only while they were airborne. All that the pilots were told was that the target was a northern Syrian facility that was labelled as an agricultural research centre on the Euphrates River, close to the Turkish border. So also the pilots who were assigned to provide air cover for the strike jets were not briefed about the mission till they too were airborne. The air cover was not required; thanks to the stealth technology and the sophisticated electronic systems, Syria’s Russian-made anti-aircraft systems were blinded. There was speculation that Israel may have used technology similar to Suter airborne network attack system used by the US, to enable its aircraft to pass undetected by Syrian radar. This system makes it possible to feed enemy radar with false targets and even manipulate enemy sensors directly.

The Raid and After:
According to Times Online, just after midnight of 6th September 2007, the 69th Squadron of Israeli Air Force comprising of F-15Is and F-16s equipped with AGM-65 Maverik missiles, 500lb bombs and external fuel tanks crossed the Syrian coastline. The raiding team consisted of 8 aircraft including an ELINT aircraft. On the ground, Syria’s air defences went dead. Operation Orchard was underway. A daring attack on a Syrian target in Deir ez-Zor or Dayr az-Zwar near the village Tal Abyad in northern Syria near the Turkish border had begun.

At a rendezvous point deep inside Syrian territory, a commando team from Shaldag air force commando waited to direct their laser beams at the target for the approaching jets. The team had arrived a day earlier, taking up positions near a large underground depot. Shortly thereafter the target was destroyed.

The only piece of evidence which was left behind were two detachable tanks from an Israeli fighter were found just over the Turkish border (Hatav and Gaziantep provinces) which according to Turkey, belonged to a Raam F15I - the newest generation of Israeli long-range bomber, which has a combat range of over 2,000km when equipped with the drop tanks.

Though Israel did not issue any statement acknowledging or denying responsibility for the attack, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stated that the IDF was demonstrating unusual courage. And added that it could not naturally reveal to the public everything.

Former officials familiar with both Syria and North Korea have pointed out that an almost bankrupt Syria has neither the economic nor the industrial base to support the kind of nuclear programme described, adding that Syria has long rejected going down the nuclear route.

At this point in time, it is difficult to verify the truth of the allegations against Syria - and Israel has a long history of employing complex deceptions in its operations - the message being delivered is quite clear: if Syria's ally, Iran, comes close to acquiring a nuclear weapon, and the world fails to prevent it, either through diplomatic or military means then Israel will stop it on its own. 

The Killing of Brigadier Suleiman
As mysterious as the raid, was the killing of Mohammed Suleiman, an officer in the Syrian Arab Army. Brigadier General Mohammed Suleiman, 49, was shot dead on  the night of 1st August 2008 at his chalet in the Rimal al-Zahabieh luxury resort nine miles north of the port city of Tartous on the Mediterranean. He was shot in the head and neck by sniper/s from a yacht which was about 50 metres from the coast.

Suleiman had been a key aide to Assad since the mid-1990s, when Bashar was being groomed to succeed his father, Hafez al-Assad, as president. Suleiman, who belonged to the same Alawite religious sect as the Assad family, supervised several portfolios, and oversaw Syria's weapons research and development program. After Assad became president in 2000, Suleiman handled his intelligence affairs and was reportedly also in charge of arms transfers from Syria to Hizballah in neighboring Lebanon. A 2007 cable from the US embassy in Damascus, published by Wikileaks in 2010, described him as "special presidential adviser for arms procurement and strategic weapons". He was probably targetted for his involvement in the uranium procurement and Syrian nuclear programme.

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