So last week some folks in Turkey looked up from whatever they were doing and heard a supersonic boom or just the gust of some jet planes and probably noticed a little plume of dust that arose beside some bemused cattle, the result of some fuel tanks that had been dropped - by some reports - by the planes escaping from Syrian anti-aircraft fire.
I thought this was likely an Israeli air force incursion, testing (i.e. probing and subsequent gathering and measuring of the system ECM and EMF) of the new Russian SAM missiles that Russia had sold to both Syria and Iran some months ago alarming the U.S. But this editorial by Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal seems to fit better with the facts (as few of them as there are right now) (Osirak II):
Israel's silence on Syria speaks volumes.
BY BRET STEPHENS
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
In the late spring of 2002 the American press reported that Israel had armed its German-made submarines with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. In Israel, this was old news. It was also headline news.
"Washington Post: Israeli subs have nuclear cruise missiles," was how the Jerusalem Post, of which I was then the editor, titled its story of June 16. It wasn't as if we didn't previously know that Israel had purchased and modified the German subs for purposes of strategic deterrence. Nor did we delight in circumlocutions. We simply needed the imprimatur of a foreign source to publish items that Israel's military censors (who operate as if the Internet doesn't exist) forbade us from reporting forthrightly.
So it's more than a little telling that the Israeli newspaper Haaretz chose, in the wake of an Israeli Air Force raid on Syria on Sept. 6 dubbed "Operation Orchard," to give front-page billing to an op-ed by John Bolton that appeared in this newspaper Aug. 31. While the article dealt mainly with the six-party talks with North Korea, Mr. Bolton also noted that "both Iran and Syria have long cooperated with North Korea on ballistic missile programs, and the prospect of cooperation on nuclear matters is not far-fetched." He went on to wonder whether Pyongyang was using its Middle Eastern allies as safe havens for its nuclear goods while it went through a U.N. inspections process.
How plausible is this scenario? The usual suspects in the nonproliferation crowd reject it as some kind of trumped-up neocon plot. Yet based on conversations with Israeli and U.S. sources, along with evidence both positive and negative (that is, what people aren't saying), it seems the likeliest suggested so far. That isn't to say, however, that plenty of gaps and question marks about the operation don't remain.
What's beyond question is that something big went down on Sept. 6. Israeli sources had been telling me for months that their air force was intensively war-gaming attack scenarios against Syria; I assumed this was in anticipation of a second round of fighting with Hezbollah. On the morning of the raid, Israeli combat brigades in the northern Golan Heights went on high alert, reinforced by elite Maglan commando units. Most telling has been Israel's blanket censorship of the story--unprecedented in the experience of even the most veteran Israeli reporters--which has also been extended to its ordinarily hypertalkative politicians. In a country of open secrets, this is, for once, a closed one.
The censorship helps dispose of at least one theory of the case. According to CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Israel's target was a cache of Iranian weapons destined for Hezbollah. But if that were the case, Israel would have every reason to advertise Damascus's ongoing violations of Lebanese sovereignty, particularly on the eve of Lebanon's crucial presidential election. Following the January 2002 Karine-A incident--in which Israeli frogmen intercepted an Iranian weapons shipment bound for Gaza--the government of Ariel Sharon wasted no time inviting reporters to inspect the captured merchandise. Had Orchard had a similar target, with similar results, it's doubtful the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert--which badly needs to erase the blot of last year's failed war--could have resisted turning it into a propaganda coup.
Something similar goes for another theory, this one from British journalist Peter Beaumont of the Observer, that the raid was in fact "a dry run for attack on Iran." Mr. Beaumont is much taken by a report that at least one of the Israeli bombers involved in the raid dropped its fuel tanks in a Turkish field near the Syrian border.
Why Israel apparently chose to route its attack through Turkey is a nice question, given that it means a detour of more than 1,000 miles. Damascus claims the fuel tank was discarded after the planes came under Syrian anti-aircraft fire, which could be true. But if Israel is contemplating an attack on Tehran's nuclear installations--and it is--it makes no sense to advertise the "Turkish corridor" as its likely avenue of attack.
As for the North Korean theory, evidence for it starts with Pyongyang. The raid, said one North Korean foreign ministry official quoted by China's Xinhua news agency, was "little short of wantonly violating the sovereignty of Syria and seriously harassing the regional peace and security." But who asked him, anyway? In August, the North Korean trade minister signed an agreement with Syria on "cooperation in trade and science and technology." Last week, Andrew Semmel, the acting counterproliferation chief at the State Department, confirmed that North Korean technicians of some kind were known to be in Syria, and that Syria was "on the U.S. nuclear watch list." And then there is yesterday's curious news that North Korea has abruptly suspended its participation in the six-party talks, for reasons undeclared.
That still leaves the question of just what kind of transfers could have taken place. There has been some speculation regarding a Syrian plant in the city of Homs, built 20 years ago to extract uranium from phosphate (of which Syria has an ample supply). Yet Homs is 200 miles west of Dayr az Zawr, the city on the Euphrates reportedly closest to the site of the attack. More to the point, uranium extraction from phosphates is a commonplace activity (without it, phosphate is hazardous as fertilizer) and there is a vast gulf separating this kind of extraction from the enrichment process needed to turn uranium into something genuinely threatening.
There is also a rumor--sourced to an unnamed expert in the Washington Post--that on Sept. 3 a North Korean ship delivered some kind of nuclear cargo to the Syrian port of Tartus, forcing the Israelis to act. That may well be accurate, though it squares awkwardly with the evidence that plans for Orchard were laid months ago.
More questions will no doubt be raised about the operational details of the raid (some sources claim there were actually two raids, one of them diversionary), as well as fresh theories about what the Israelis were after and whether they got it. The only people that can provide real answers are in Jerusalem and Damascus, and for the most part they are preserving an abnormal silence. In the Middle East, that only happens when the interests of prudence and the demands of shame happen to coincide. Could we have just lived through a partial reprise of the 1981 Israeli attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor? On current evidence, it is the least unlikely possibility.
Mr. Stephens is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board. His column appears in the Journal Tuesdays.