Until late October, the accepted explanation about
the Sept. 6 Israeli air strike in Syria, constructed in a series of press leaks
from U.S. officials, was that it was prompted by dramatic satellite intelligence
that Syria was building a nuclear facility with help from North Korea.
But new satellite evidence has discredited that narrative, suggesting a more
plausible explanation for the strike: that it was a calculated effort by Israel
and the United States to convince Iran that its nuclear facilities could be
attacked as well.
The narrative promoted by neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration
began to unravel in late October with the release by a private company of a
series of satellite images showing that the same square, multistory building
that was hit by Israeli planes Sept. 6 had been present on the site four years
earlier. Although the building appears to be somewhat farther along in the August
2007 image, it showed that the only major new developments at the site since
September 2003 were what appears to be a pumping station on the Euphrates and
a smaller secondary structure.
Media reports based on leaks from administration officials had suggested that
the presence of a water pump indicated that the building must have been a nuclear
reactor. But Jeffrey Lewis, a specialist on nuclear technology at the New America
Foundation, pointed out in an interview with IPS that the existence of a water
pump cannot be taken as evidence of the purpose of the building, since other
kinds of industrial buildings would also need to pump water.
The campaign of press leaks portraying the strike as related to an alleged
nuclear weapons program assisted by North Korea began almost immediately after
the Israeli strike. On Sept. 11, a Bush administration official told the New
York Times that Israel had obtained intelligence from "reconnaissance
flights" over Syria showing "possible nuclear installations that Israeli
officials believed might have been supplied with material from North Korea."
The Bush administration officials leaking this account to the press, obviously
aligned with Vice President Dick Cheney, were hoping to shoot down the administration's
announced policy, pushed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, of going ahead
with an agreement to provide food and fuel aid to North Korea in exchange for
the dismantling of its nuclear program.
They had lost an earlier battle over that policy and were seeking to use the
Israeli strike story as a new argument against it.
The officials did not want the intelligence community involved in assessing
the alleged new evidence, suggesting that they knew it would not withstand expert
scrutiny. Glenn Kessler reported in the Washington Post Sept. 13 that
the "dramatic satellite imagery" provided by Israel had been restricted
to "a few senior officials" and not disseminated to the intelligence
community, on orders from National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley.
The intelligence community had opposed a previous neoconservative effort in
2002-2003 to claim evidence of a Syrian nuclear program at the same site. A
senior U.S. intelligence official confirmed to the New York Times on
Oct. 30 that U.S. intelligence analysts had been aware of the Syrian site in
question "from the beginning" meaning from before 2003
but had not been convinced that it was an indication of an active nuclear program.
In 2002, John Bolton, then undersecretary of state for arms control and international
security, wanted to go public with an accusation that Syria was seeking a nuclear
weapons program, but the intelligence community rejected the claim. A State
Department intelligence analyst had called Bolton's assertion that Syria was
interested in nuclear weapons technology "a stretch" and other elements
of the community also challenged it, according to a Senate Foreign Relations
The attack on the site was an obvious demonstration of Israel's military dominance
over Syria, generally considered a vital ally of Iran by Israeli and U.S. officials.
It was also in line with the general approach of using force against Syria that
Cheney and his allies in the administration had urged on Israel before and during
the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in summer 2006.
During the war, Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams told a senior
Israeli official that the Bush administration would not object if Israel "chose
to extend the war beyond to its other northern neighbor," leaving no doubt
he meant for Israel to attack Syria, IPS reported last December. David Wurmser's
wife, Meyrav Wurmser, director of the neoconservative Hudson Institute's Center
for Middle East Policy, told Israel's YNet News in December 2006 that "many
parts of the American administration believed that Israel should have fought
against the real enemy, which is Syria and not Hezbollah." She said such
an attack on Syria would have been "such a harsh blow for Iran that it
would have weakened it and changed the strategic map in the Middle East."
Both Israeli and U.S. officials dropped hints soon after the Israeli raid that
it was aimed at sending a message to Iran. Ten days after the raid, Israeli
military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin declared to a parliamentary committee,
"Israel's deterrence has been rehabilitated since the Lebanon war, and
it affects the entire regional system, including Iran and Syria."
Although he did not refer explicitly to the strike in Syria, the fact that
the Syrian raid was the only event that could possibly have been regarded as
restoring Israel's strategic credibility left little doubt as to the meaning
of the reference.
That same day, Reuters quoted an unnamed U.S. Defense Department official as
saying that the significance of the strike "was not whether Israel hit
its targets, but rather that it displayed a willingness to take military action."
On Sept. 18, former United Nations ambassador John Bolton was quoted by the
Jewish Telegraphic Agency as saying, "We're talking about a clear message
to Iran Israel has the right to self-defense and that includes
offensive operations against WMD facilities that pose a threat to Israel. The
United States would justify such attacks."
On Oct. 7, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who enjoys access
to top administration officials, quoted an unnamed official as providing the
official explanation for the Israeli attack as targeting "nuclear materials
supplied to Syria by North Korea."
But then, without quoting the official directly, Ignatius reported the official's
description of the raid's implicit message: "[T]he message to Iran is clear:
America and Israel can identify nuclear targets and penetrate air defenses to
The official's suggestion that the strike was a joint U.S.-Israeli message
about a joint policy toward striking Iran's nuclear sites was the clearest indication
that the primary objective of the strike was to intimidate Iran at a time when
both Israel and the Cheney faction of the Bush administration were finding it
increasingly difficult to do so.
(Inter Press Service)