Nearly two weeks have passed since Israeli warplanes
conducted a mysterious raid against an as yet unidentified target in northeast
Syria. Details of the incident have been slow to come, as officials from both
countries have remained tightlipped.
In the absence of a clear picture of what happened in the early hours of Sept.
6, speculation in the U.S. mainstream media has grown as to what exactly the
Israelis targeted, and why Damascus assuming it was the target of an
unprovoked attack has been so muted in its response.
Was Israel's attack aimed at testing Syria's radar defenses? Did the air strike
seek to disrupt arms shipments to Lebanon's Hezbollah? Was it a dress rehearsal
for a possible future strike on Iranian nuclear facilities?
Feeding the speculation, a familiar clutch of George W. Bush administration
hawks appears to be suggesting that Israel's apparent air strike may have targeted
a joint North Korea-Syria nuclear venture.
Writing in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal more than a
week before the incident, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John
R. Bolton asserted, "We know 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."
"Whether and to what extent Iran, Syria, or others might be 'safe heavens'
for North Korea's nuclear weapons development, or may have already benefited
from it, must be made clear," he wrote. Bolton resigned his position at
the UN in late 2006 and currently serves as a senior fellow at the neoconservative
American Enterprise Institute.
Comments made by a State Department official last Friday fanned the flames
further and bolstered the neoconservative argument. Andrew Semmel, acting deputy
assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation policy, told the Associated
Press that the U.S. believes that Syria may have a number of "secret suppliers"
to obtain nuclear equipment as part of a covert program.
The Bush administration has maintained a hard-line policy stance on Syria.
It has not had high-level diplomatic relations with the country since the assassination
of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. The U.S. has alleged
that Syria played a role in the assassination.
Neoconservatives appear to be re-igniting a political narrative that fits neatly
with the infamous cast of the "axis of evil." While not explicitly
mentioned, Syria has often been designated as a junior partner of Iran, Iraq,
and North Korea's "reign of terror" because of its support for Islamist
opposition groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza.
"They want to torpedo the North Korea deal, they have clung doggedly to
making sure that there is no cooperation in Syria, and they're the same people
who got us into this mess in the Middle East in the first place," said
Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator and senior fellow at the Washington-based
New America Foundation.
The focus on North Korea comes as the U.S. prepares to implement a deal to
end the country's nuclear weapons program, a diplomatic approach that has drawn
the ire of policy hawks like Bolton.
"Bolton represents the crowd that is very distressed that the U.S. has
declared defeat in North Korea by trusting the North Koreans. They would like
to scuttle that agreement," wrote
Syria expert Josh Landis on his widely read blog.
"While doing it, anything they can drag into to boost the notion of weapons
transfers between Korea and Syria and Iran will be icing on the cake. Israeli
planes were trying to get the goods," he wrote.
Some U.S. analysts have been very dubious of an actual Syrian nuclear threat,
describing the speculation surrounding the incident as a manufactured stunt
aimed at advancing a neoconservative agenda.
"This story is nonsense. The Washington Post story should have
been headlined 'White House Officials Try to Push North Korea-Syria Connection.'
This is a political story, not a threat story," said Joseph Cirincione,
director for nuclear policy at the Washington-based Center for American Progress,
according to an interview with Foreign Policy.
"Once again, this appears to be the work of a small group of officials
leaking cherry-picked, unvetted 'intelligence' to key reporters in order to
promote a preexisting political agenda. If this sounds like the run-up to the
war in Iraq, it should. This time it appears aimed at derailing the U.S.-North
Korean agreement that administration hardliners think is appeasement. Some Israelis
want to thwart any dialogue between the U.S. and Syria," he said.
Cirincione previously served as director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace.
The Israeli media bound by an army censor that restricts coverage of the
incident has relied largely on foreign press reports to reconstruct the incident.
"The Israeli press have gone out of their way to say to the Israeli public,
'we know [the story], we're gonna selectively quote from the overseas rumors
and you can fill in the gaps,'" Levy told IPS. "[The press] was dismissive
about the reports about arming Hezbollah, and gave greater weight to those connecting
Syria and North Korea."
Syria lodged a formal complaint with the UN Tuesday over the "flagrant
violation" of its airspace last week by the Israeli warplanes, which Damascus
claims dropped munitions on its territory. Israel and Syria have technically
been at war since 1967, when Israel occupied the Golan during the Six-Day War.
The air strike follows a summer that saw heightened tension between the two
countries, a period that provides the necessary context for the eventual Israeli
"Something will come to light and will make it clear to everyone the
Israelis were sitting on intelligence," said Levy.
Experts are still unsure of what that intelligence entails, and whether is
it "nuclear," "non-conventional," "chemical,"
or nothing of the sort. Regardless, in most of the narratives, the North Korea
connection remains a salient point.
But whatever happened in the early hours of Sept. 6 does not appear to have
soured Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's efforts to restart negotiations
with his adversary. Olmert announced on Monday that Israel was prepared to hold
negotiations with Damascus, without preconditions and without ultimatums, according
to the Jerusalem Post.
(Inter Press Service)