Sunday, September 16, 2007

Osirak redux, and the idiom of military action 

The Times of London reported this morning that the Israeli "incursion" into Syrian airspace a few days back destroyed, or was intended to destroy, nuclear material probably supplied by the North Koreans. Iran is probably involved as well, since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent one of his nephews to inspect the damage. The Times:

The triangular relationship between North Korea, Syria and Iran continues to perplex intelligence analysts. Syria served as a conduit for the transport to Iran of an estimated £50m of missile components and technology sent by sea from North Korea. The same route may be in use for nuclear equipment.

But North Korea is at a sensitive stage of negotiations to end its nuclear programme in exchange for security guarantees and aid, leading some diplomats to cast doubt on the likelihood that Kim would cross America’s “red line” forbidding the proliferation of nuclear materials.

Christopher Hill, the State Department official representing America in the talks, said on Friday he could not confirm “intelligence-type things”, but the reports underscored the need “to make sure the North Koreans get out of the nuclear business”.

By its actions, Israel showed it is not interested in waiting for diplomacy to work where nuclear weapons are at stake.

As a bonus, the Israelis proved they could penetrate the Syrian air defence system, which is stronger than the one protecting Iranian nuclear sites.

This weekend President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran sent Ali Akbar Mehrabian, his nephew, to Syria to assess the damage. The new “axis of evil” may have lost one of its spokes.

Righty bloggers are piling in. Allison Kaplan Sommer, writing for Pajamas Media, reports tidbits from the regional media (the tracking of a North Korean ship to Syria, news from Kuwait that the Turks supplied useful intelligence to Israel) that add up to this:
Taken together, the stories have given some Israeli commentators more license to observe – without offering any further details – that this strike on Syria was a major move to preserve Israel’s deterrence abilities in the region. Without revealing details, some are declaring it a “historic event” - as significant as the attack in Iraq in 1981 or last summer’s war in Lebanon.

Power Line is interested in the American media's lack of interest, and wonders whether it is all just too much cognitive dissonance:
Bill Katz notes the absence of major interest in the raid by the American media and wonders why. "Could it be that they choke over any notion that the Bush administration's concern over WMD might be justified?"

UPDATE: The New York Sun comments on the raid in its September 12 editorial. The Sun concludes: "Things are now in motion in a war that is larger than the one about which the Democrats are caviling."

Dan Riehl: "Who's your Daddy, now, Ahmadinejad?"


It will shock nobody that I am more or less delighted whenever the Israelis bomb Syria. That country, which remains in a state of war with Israel, has, to date, dealt far more misery in the region than it has suffered, so the giant moral scale in the sky remains a long way from balance.

That said, the Israeli raid had nothing to do with reprisal. Its purpose was to interdict and communicate. Military action is its own idiom, especially when accompanied by leaks from the unleaky and silence from the places that usually erupt in indignation and rage.

Yes, Israel has demonstrated that it can penetrate Syrian, and therefore Iranian, air defenses. If the mullahs were confused on that point, perhaps because the military in any authoritarian system is prone to optimism, they are no longer. That is a handy bit of information for the mullahs to have. Let's hope they put it to good use.

Second, the Turks have sent a message. How is it that a Kuwaiti paper reported the involvement of the Turks? That news was not broken by an investigative journalist, it was leaked. Turkey, or at least its virulently anti-Islamist military, wanted Syria and Iran to know that it will not stand by passively while they assemble arsenals of the world's most dangerous weapons.

Finally -- and this is the really loud message -- the Arab world, taken as a whole, has responded with... silence. No other Arab government complained about the raid, forcing Syria to take its protest to the United Nations alone. No mobs poured into the famous "Arab street," no flags were burned, no cars torched, and no "rage boys" screamed into television cameras. The message to Syria and Iran could not have been more clear: The Arabs are far more worried about Iran and its satellites than they are about Israel.

As they should be.

MORE: Dar Al-Hayat, the Lebanese paper, published an interesting analysis before the Times raised the nuclear weapons angle, under the title "Israeli Strike Aimed to Break the Syrian-Iranian Alliance". Among other points, the piece wonders why even Syria has been quiet about the raid, so much so that in its protest to the U.N. it did not even request that the Security Council convene. Why? Perhaps to avoid an inquiry into the target of the raid.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Sep 16, 12:18:00 PM:

That is indeed an intriguing analysis. If the Syrians and the Israelis are engaged in peace negotiations, as they have been rumored to be, this "communication" as you call it, would have to have some relevance to that process. If, perhaps, the Syrians had become obstreperous over some issue, while relying on the tremendous strength of their air defense system, this message might well have been intended by the Israelis to demolish that over confident notion even while demonstrating the in depth knowledge they possess of the nature and locations of joint Syrian-Iranian projects.

Whatever is happening, I agree most wholeheartedly with your basic point: the most fascinating part of all this is the silence all over the region. Overall interests may be different, and relations between governments in the mid-east are notoriously complex, but this particular event seems to have been convenient for several regional players.  

By Blogger A Jacksonian, at Sun Sep 16, 02:34:00 PM:

I would think that the Israeli's went after the site that Ray Robison pointed out previously, with nuclear scientists in Syria arriving from Iran and ex-Russian Republics. Of all the sites I was able to run down in Syria only two remained... al-Baida for the reason of poor imagery in the Masayaf area, and the al-Hasaka site.

Without knowing where the Israeli fuel tanks were found in Turkey, one can't really say which, of all the places they could hit, they went after. Those initial reports of a northern base would point to the combined long range SCUD and CW plant at al-Safira. I could imagine Israeli pilots only doing a single, fast pass, going to Turkey coming from the Med and then dropping tanks and a fast run over Safira and southwards, playing hell with the radar systems to find them as they activated. That would be damned risky, but get a 'two-fer' for any new systems that have been installed in the last 2 years or so. Also in that corridor are Tal Snan, al-Baida, the phosphate separation plant at Homs (on the lake), Furqlus depot and the Khan Abu Shamat depot.... lots of fun things to look at with high speed cameras of various sorts.

However, if the later reports of being 'within 50 miles of the Iraqi border' and near the Euphrates is correct, then that looks more like al-Hasaka and the nuclear finishing group, with reports on NoKo missiles being 'more of the same' in the trade between Syria and NoKo. About the only other reference to *that* group cited by Robison is a uranium finishing plant masquerading as an agricultural facility (possibly the Deir Zzor university site). There aren't that many SAM sites in that part of Syria, so that is no real feat, unlike going through the nasty corridor around al-Safira... but Israel flew unmolested through 'the most heavily defended airspace on the planet' when they did the Bekaa raids last year, so I am starting to think the Syrian SAM system is in a state of decay like its armored units. Still, why Turkey? That doesn't require a calling card that far north.

Until more firm info is available, it will take time to piece together. Find the place where the tanks were dropped, and you will know *what* they went after.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sun Sep 16, 03:33:00 PM:

"but Israel flew unmolested through 'the most heavily defended airspace on the planet' when they did the Bekaa raids last year"

The Bekaa is shielded from Syria by the anti-Lebanon mountain range. And since there are no longer regular Syrian army units in Lebanon, there is no need for tactical air defense there, either.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Sep 16, 04:34:00 PM:

Scenario: Iran and Syria sneak a low-yield nuclear device into Lebanon. Next they instigate another Lebanon/Israel mini-war, and after a week or two detonate the device inside Lebanon. All the Arab powers use the detonation as a casus belli and attack Israel.

The United States is morally paralyzed by the first offensive detonation of a nuclear weapon since Nagasaki. Israel likewise can't use its inventory because it will be desperately trying to convince everyone that it didn't nuke Lebanon.

The whole thing would be over in a few days, before anyone could make a determination about who really nuked Lebanon, and Syria wouldn't allow an investigation.

And that's how Iran can use nuclear weapon to take down Israel without worrying about a counterstrike.  

By Blogger DEC, at Sun Sep 16, 05:04:00 PM:

Meanwhile, the BBC reports today:

"French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner says the world should prepare for war over Iran's nuclear programme."


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Sep 16, 05:31:00 PM:

The implications of hitting the Robison site would be spectacular. Killing 60-80 or more top enemy nuclear scientists along with their research facility would be a spectacular and possibly fatal blow to Iran's nuclear ambitions.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Sep 16, 08:43:00 PM:

I have no military training so forgive me if my question seems simplistic. How is alerting an enemy to a weakness in their defence (ie. the Iranian air defence) a good thing?  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sun Sep 16, 09:22:00 PM:

It proves to them that you can hurt them in a way they didn't foresee or think possible.

So in strictly military terms, if you don't capitalize on your strike then you've wasted an opportunity, and it isn't a good thing.

But on the diplomatic level, it can make the enemy rethink their position and perhaps be more willing to negotiate if they suddenly discover that you can penetrate what they thought was secure.

Kudos on asking an honest question, by the way. That seems to be rare these days.

"All the Arab powers use the detonation as a casus belli and attack Israel."

Most of the Arab powers hate Iran. They funneled vast amounts of money into Iraq to kill more Iranians during the 80s war.  

By Anonymous JLawson, at Sun Sep 16, 09:38:00 PM:

Anonymous - Think of misdirection, and allocation of scarce resources to meet a perceived threat. If Iran beefs up it's western border air defense (between Turkey and Iraq, that's quite a stretch of real estate) that's equipment it can't use elsewhere. And Iran isn't the richest state - that equipment is going to have to come from somewhere and currently the regime is a pretty poor credit risk so it's unlikely to be able to get credit at Weapons'R'Us.

So that beefing up might come from units on the Arabian Sea and further south, or east on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. They'll move equipment to meet the perceived threat - and then a carrier group comes in from the south and causes a whole lot of destruction.

And it wouldn't at all surprise me if there were countries in that area that saw a peaceful Israel as much less of an evil than a nuclear-armed Iran, and were willing to help accordingly with logistics and intelligence support.  

By Anonymous Yankee Sailor, at Sun Sep 16, 10:36:00 PM:

This raid is another bit of supporting evidence for what I believe will be the character of wars for the next generation: wars of counterproliferation.

Sure, we'll keep pressing the war on terror, but the major conflicts will be more about WMDs than suicide bombers....  

By Blogger Allison, at Sun Sep 16, 11:05:00 PM:

I like your analysis. It's a heck of a lot better than whoever the "analysts" are referred to in the first sentence you excerpt:

"The triangular relationship between North Korea, Syria and Iran continues to perplex intelligence analysts."

Really, a triangular relationship PERPLEXES intelligence analysts? The notion of triangular trade goes back at least ten thousand years, but it perplexes intelligence analysts? Who are these analysts? What editor allowed such a sentence to be written?

So the silence isn't just in the Arab street; it's in the questions not asked in this very article.  

By Blogger Georgfelis, at Mon Sep 17, 10:29:00 AM:

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture of a bomb hitting your top-secret nuclear research base is worth a thousand UN resolutions, right? :)

Indignant outrage is most easily generated when a designated “Victim” has been slapped down, and nothing in Syria/Iran/North Korea nuclear ambitions is really considered to be a victim anymore. To put it nicely, the normal people of the normal nations (and by extension their leaders) in the area are getting sick and tired of the “monkey playing with the dynamite” routine that Syria and Iran have been milking for the past several years, and a few carefully targeted explosions deep inside their precious Arsenal of Peace are merely generating a few grumbled “serves them right” comments. Israel is surrounded by these nuts, and does not have the thin insulating layer of distance the US enjoys. Even if they could “win” a nuclear exchange with one of their neighbors, a far better choice is not to need to use nukes by taking pre-emptive action. Good for them.  

By Blogger Georgfelis, at Mon Sep 17, 10:36:00 AM:

By the way, there are some nice photos of Syria's target manufacturing facility at Al-Safir at

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Sep 18, 05:37:00 PM:

The Axis of Evil is alive and well.

All I can say is they are all involved which makes it highly likely that a high value shipment of some kind did indeed take place.

Israeli leftish governement is not the type to conduct silent "show of strengths" as in your analysis Tiger. Recall the Hezbollah war last year and Ohmert was making an ass of himself daily with his pronouncements. I don't think he all of a sudden learned to behave any differently.

This was a direct atatck on a high value target that warranted silence all around. The special investigative trip by the Iranian President's son and the breaking off of North Korean talks is VERY telling of the aftermath...

You can bet it is nuclear materials. I would say North Korea had a firesale on their leftover materials and it just got splattered. Iran is going in to assess the damage. The shipment was likely meant to end up in their hands.

As far as the actual materials, I would speculate strongly that it was centrifuge equipment or something on that order. Something that needs very special care in shipment due to the delicate nature.

Centrifuges present an enormous challenge to ship. They require extensive packaging and cannot be "rushed" or sneaked in by any old means. Also due to the nature of the equipment, its not something that would have been sent via multiple shipments. Its something you would do all at once if you can. Likely this shipment was tracked from the day it was boxed up in North Korea by American intelligence and then tracked by the US Navy, etc.

Centrifuges are key to Iran right now and it is something that the parties involved would be willing to risk to ship (verus say radioactive uranium).

Thats where my money lies.


By Blogger Georgfelis, at Wed Sep 19, 11:05:00 AM:

And if they were used centrifuges, they would be both fragile and radioactive, a way for N. Korea to get rid of its old equipment and get paid for it too. Not to mention a royal mess to clean up the bomb site.

If the Israelis really wanted to complicate the cleanup and send a message, they could have dropped one additional sealed concrete bomb in the attack, with just a trace of radioactivity on it. I would imagine the Syrians would be quite hesitant to approach what would look and test as an unexploded nuke in the wreckage, sitting there going tick. Tick. Tick.  

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