Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Bret Stephens picks at the various mysteries (free link) surrounding Israel's strange raid on Syria on September 6.
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.
Stephens focuses on the explicit purpose of the raid, which was interdiction of something. Notwithstanding my view that the raid was intended to communicate, nothing useful would have come from bombs landing harmlessly in the sand or destructively on civilians. Otherwise, the Syrians would be parading the news media in front of a demolished aspirin factory or displaying piles of dead babies allegedly killed by the Jews. So the IDF must have destroyed something that Syria does not want to admit that it had within its borders. But what?
Osirak sticks in my mind. It's the only other time I know of when Isreal went for the long pass (excepting Entebbe which I consider a different sort of act). It is not reasonable to me that Isreal would do something so bold and dangerous for a small target, like weapons for Hezbollah, or a reading on Syrian air defenses. And the raid was too small, apparently, to make any significant dent in Syria's missle force. It's not the kind of thing, in my opinioin, Israel would do just to send a message.
This was something of much greater importance to Israel than any of those things. They would only do this if it was extremely vital. They would judge it extremely vital only if it was extremely threatening either now or at some point in the future when it would be harder to deal with.
This wasn't tactical. It was strategic.
It strongly appears that North Korea is involved. They do not have a habit of commenting on middle east affairs so the fact that they did comment suggested that it affected their interest. And, by the sound of it they were a bit pissed off.
What would piss them off? Someone taking their toot toot. That could be money, goods, or senior soldiers or scientists. North Korea lost something on account of Israel's actions.
It is easy to see why Syria doesn't want to talk about this. They are trapped at the far end of a box canyon.
To me the interesting question is why Isreal does not want to talk about it. Maybe they don't want to embarass Syria into escalating the situation. Maybe they're not done yet. Maybe they had help. Maybe they just concluded they don't have to. Maybe they figure that if they speak up they will draw scorn and indignation that will make similar missions in the future more difficult. Maybe they decided that Syria will feel it more if they are alone.
Is it only coincidence that Iran is now threatening missle attack on US targets in the region?
It's clear that Israel targetted something that Syria doesn't want to talk about. Whether the raid was successful is another story -- both governments would be quiet in the event of either success or failure of the raid, provided that the target justifies the silence. Reports of North Korean diplomats complaining about the attack would tend to confirm its success. Let's hope the raid was a success.