So what was that Sept. 6 Israeli bombing of Syria all about? The official line is that Israel flattened a Syrian nuclear reactor, which may have been designed by the North Koreans, although with all the chaff being thrown up, it hard to tell what really happened (“chaff “is metallic foil used to confuse radar systems).
Aviation Weekly reports the facility was first spotted by an Israeli Ofek 7 satellite, and Tel Aviv relayed the intelligence to the Bush Administration. Neither the Israelis nor the Americans will say a word in public, but one “U.S. official” told the New York Times, “There wasn’t a lot of debate about the evidence. There was a lot of debate about how to respond to it.”
But according to an investigation by B. Michael on the Jewish website Ynet.news.com, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad likely told the truth when he said the raid hit an “unused military building” and blew up “nothing of consequence.”
First, recently released photos indicate that U.S. intelligence had known about the place since at least 2003, making it far more likely that the U.S. told the Israelis rather than visa-a-versa.
Second, the moment people got a chance to look at the photos, the nonsense about its “remote” location began to disassemble. The Dewar az Zawr facility is just over one mile from the major tourist magnet at Halabiya, where rafting trips down the Euphrates are organized.
Third, as Michael points out, “This ‘reactor’ is not surrounded by any fence. There is no wall there either, no watchtowers, no residential structures, no patrol roads, no anti-aircraft positions, and no barracks.” There is not even a guard post.
The Israeli explanation for this rather casual approach to security is that the facility was so secret, not even the Syrian Army knew about it, hence the lack of defensive measures. Michael acidly suggests, “this reactor was so secretive that nobody in Syria knew about its existence. Only the Israelis knew.”
So a case of bad intelligence? Or are some people up to no good?
Rightwing Israelis used the issue to argue that Syria should have been excluded from the recent Annapolis conference between Israelis and Palestinians.
U.S. neo-conservatives, like former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, argue that the U.S. should withdraw from the six-party talks with North Korea over disarming that country’s nuclear weapons program because of the charge that North Korea may have helped design the so-called “reactor.” “There’s a growing suspicion that the veil of secrecy about Syria doesn’t have to do so much with intelligence as with protecting the six party talks and the Annapolis conference,” Bolton told the Financial Times.
The evidence for a “reactor” at Dewar az Zawr is thin. Much has been made of one building close to the Euphrates that is identified as a “pumping station”-water is essential to cool a nuclear reactor-but it doesn’t appear in early images of the facility and neither the Israelis nor the Bush Administration have presented any evidence that the building is a coolant facility.
“It’s a box on a river,” says Jeffery Lewis, an arms control expert for the New America Foundation. “I am amazed that people can say they know the function just because of its dimensions.”
The only other evidence is negative: the facility was razed following the bombing, which the U.S. says proves that it was a reactor. Or maybe the Syrians tore down a bombed building? In any case, they have started rebuilding it, same size, same shape, but with a different roof.
Michaels concludes the attack was all about politics: “A sequence of circular and manipulative intelligence schemes, piles of nonsense premised on tidbits of information, and the exploitation of this entire mess for the sake of political objectives of various leaders and their camps, both here (Israel) and in the United States.”
CONN HALLINAN is an analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, a winner of a Project Censored Award, and did his PhD dissertation on the history of insurrectionary organizations in Ireland.