Five years on, new details emerge about Israeli strike on Syrian reactor
According to an article in the New Yorker, Mossad agents broke into the home of a Syrian top official in Vienna and copied dozens of photographs of the secret facility, bombed in 2007; The U.S. was convinced by Israel's intelligence, but refused to carry out a strike.
The American magazine The New Yorker on Monday published an extensive investigative article about the 2007 bombing of the Syrian nuclear installation by Israel. The affair, which is still a confidential matter in Israel subject to strict censorship rules, was recently the target of several investigations and was mentioned in the memoirs of several Bush administration officials, including the ex-president himself. Nevertheless, the current investigation seems to be the fullest reconstruction yet of how the attack played out and includes several heretofore unknown details.
The author of the investigative article is David Makovsky, an American Jew who lived in Israel for many years and once served as the political correspondent of Haaretz and of The Jerusalem Post. Makovsky, now a respected senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, states that he relied on conversations with a dozen or so high-ranking Israelis and another dozen American officials who were involved in decisions related to the attack.
According to The New Yorker, Israel first suspected that Syria had renewed its interest in a nuclear program toward the end of 2006. Some of the initial intelligence focused on a large, “enigmatic” building under construction in northeast Syria, in the Deir al-Zour region. On March 7, 2007, Mossad agents raided the Vienna home of Ibrahim Othman, head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Agency. Othman was in Vienna to take part in a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors. The agents, who left no trace of their visit, broke into Othman’s home, hacked into his computer and copied about three dozen incriminating photos from it.
These were color photographs taken from inside the Syrian compound. The photos, in some of which North Korean workers can be seen, corroborated suspicions in Israel: Pyongyang was building a plutonium reactor in the compound for the Syrians. The installation, named Al Kibar, looked similar to a North Korean nuclear installation in Yongbyon. It was being built near the Turkish and Iraqi borders, only 800 meters or so from the Euphrates River.
Mossad experts who studied the aerial photographs and the photos stolen from the Syrian official’s computer determined that the only possible goal of such an installation would be the assembly of a nuclear bomb.
The following day, Mossad director Meir Dagan and two other officials of the espionage agency met with then-prime minister Ehud Olmert. After showing him the findings, they told Olmert that Israel would have to act quickly. If the plutonium reactor were to go hot, there was a risk that any attack on it would cause radiation emissions that would contaminate the Euphrates.
Olmert recognized the extent of the security challenge facing him, and hastened to convene a series of consultations. To avoid drawing unnecessary attention to the issue, the prime minister held some of the meetings at his residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street, instead of at “the aquarium” in the Prime Minister’s Office. He also consulted several of his predecessors – Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak.
Simultaneously, consultations were held with then-defense minister Amir Peretz, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Mossad director Dagan, Director of Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin, and the director of the Shin Bet security agency, Yuval Diskin. The forum usually convened every Friday. All of the participants signed a secrecy agreement.
On April 18, at a meeting between Peretz and his American counterpart Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the information was first submitted to the Bush administration. Makovsky writes that Peretz, who is not fluent in English, read out part of the information from an index card that had been prepared for him. Meanwhile, Dagan departed for Washington, where he showed ranking administration officials the photos from Othman’s computer. President George W. Bush ordered the initiation of an independent American inquiry. Bush, like his intelligence people, was still feeling the burn of the war in Iraq and the unfounded information about the existence of weapons of mass destruction there. “Gotta be secret, and gotta be sure,” the president instructed his people in regard to the inquiry.
The U.S. intelligence experts were convinced that the photos submitted by the Mossad were authentic. “If it's not a nuclear reactor, then it's a fake nuclear reactor,” they told the president. At the same time, two teams were set up within the administration to explore the American policy for dealing with the problem.
The Americans were not overly excited by the notion of launching a U.S. military attack. “Every administration gets one preemptive war against a Muslim country, and this administration has already done one,” said Gates, disregarding the fact that Bush had essentially attacked twice, in Iraq and also in Afghanistan. Another problem was the loss of faith in the Israel Defense Forces’ military judgment by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice following the Second Lebanon War.
“Condi thought the Israeli military was unreliable and that they were no longer the 10-foot giants we had grown up with,” said a participant in the administration's deliberations. Rice was concerned that an attack on the reactor would lead to war between Israel and Syria and Hezbollah, and she did not want to put at risk the Israeli-Palestinian peace conference that was about to convene in Annapolis, or the sensitive negotiations then underway between the superpowers and North Korea.
On June 17, Bush convened a meeting of senior administration and intelligence officials. CIA director Michael Hayden confirmed that “Al Kibar was part of a nuclear weapons program” and that “we could conceive of no alternative uses for the facility.”
He pointed out, however, that the intelligence had not yet turned up evidence of the “other essentials of a weapons program” whose object would be development of a nuclear missile warhead. Therefore, Hayden “cautiously characterized this finding as ‘low confidence.’” Once these words were uttered, Makovsky writes, Bush felt that he no longer had the political cover to justify a preemptive American strike against Syria.
The president told Olmert that in the absence of proof of the existence of a Syrian weapons program, he would not be able to attack. Olmert implored Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, to lead the attack on the Syrian installation. By doing so, Olmert said, America would kill two birds with one stone, because the attack would also deter Iran from advancing its nuclear program. He further declared that if the U.S. did not act, Israel would have to deal with the problem on its own.
On July 12, on the first anniversary of the outbreak of the second war in Lebanon, Bush convened another meeting. The president wanted to dispatch a special emissary to the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, and deliver an ultimatum to dismantle the reactor, under the supervision of the five superpowers that are the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
The next day, Bush telephoned Olmert. If America attacked, the president argued, the administration would have to inform Congress that the bombing was carried out on the basis of Israeli intelligence findings. Does Israel truly want that to be made public? Olmert cautioned that the opening of a diplomatic channel was liable to enable Assad to buy time, and in the meantime the reactor could go hot. Elliot Abrams, the deputy national security adviser, said at the consultations that from the moment that Assad’s intentions are exposed, what would stop the Syrian leader from putting a kindergarten near the site or from deploying anti-aircraft weaponry to repel an attack?
The U.S. and Israel, writes Makovsky, were in agreement on the facts and risks, but had reached opposing policy decisions on the manner of dealing with the Syrian reactor. Olmert was worried that any U.S. official who was not on board with the Israeli strike would try to sabotage it by leaking information. Bush guaranteed that all of his people would remain “buttoned up.” And yet Bush understood Olmert’s situation. “Olmert said he did not ask Bush for a green light, but Bush did not give Israel a red light,” a former Israeli general told Makovsky. “Olmert saw it as green.”
In the meantime, Israel explored its own operational options: a broad-based aerial attack (nicknamed “Fat Shkedi,” after Israel Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedi), a limited aerial attack (called “Skinny Shkedi,” of course), or a ground attack by special forces. The common assessment in Israel was that in the event of a low-profile attack, Assad would choose not to respond militarily, as he would prefer to conceal the fact that he had been developing a nuclear program in contravention of his obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Psychologists consulted by the IDF assessed that if Israel did not push Assad into a corner by publicly declaring its responsibility for the attack, the Syrian president would be given a “zone of denial” that would allow him to not do anything.
In the consultations, then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni and representatives of the Mossad and the IDF favored a low-profile attack, for similar reasons. In June, an Israeli special forces team was sent into Syrian territory, gathered soil samples and clandestinely photographed the reactor compound from a distance of about 1,500 meters.
In the meantime, Ehud Barak replaced Amir Peretz as defense minister. Makovsky writes that Barak sought to delay the attack for a while in order to enable the IDF to better prepare for a Syrian counterstrike. Olmert, on the other hand, suspected that the new defense minister was simply waiting for the final report of the Winograd Commission on the conduct of the Second Lebanon War, due to be issued a few months later, in the hope that Olmert would resign and Barak could then lead the attack. (This issue is the subject of a sharp disagreement between Barak and Olmert, which is only hinted at due to restrictions imposed by the censor in Israel).
Over the next few weeks, six security-cabinet meetings were held on the matter. “It may have been the most dramatic set of sessions that I can ever recall in the security cabinet,” one of the cabinet ministers told The New Yorker.
On September 1, Olmert’s close aide, Yoram Turbowicz, informed the White House that Israel had nearly completed its preparations for an attack. The Mossad also updated its British counterpart, MI6, on details of the attack, without providing information on the timing. On September 5, the cabinet deliberated for the last time. All of the ministers voted in favor of an attack, except for Avi Dichter, who abstained. Olmert, Barak and Livni were authorized by the cabinet to decide on the time and character of the attack. The three withdrew to a side room, where Chief of Staff Ashkenazi recommended to them that the attack be carried out that night, in the Skinny Shkedi format. His opinion was accepted.
Near midnight, a four-aircraft formation of F-16s and a four-aircraft formation of F-15s took off from IAF bases. According to Makovsky, one was the Ramat David airbase in northern Israel. The planes flew north along the Mediterranean coast and then turned eastward along the border between Syria and Turkey. The aircraft employed electronic warfare equipment that blinded the Syrian air-defense network.
Olmert, Barak and Livni tracked the operation from the underground command-and-control center known as “the pit” in the IDF’s Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv. Sometime between 12:40 and 12:53, the pilots uttered the computer-generated codeword of the day, “Arizona” – meaning that 17 tons of bombs had been dropped on the facility in northeast Syria.
“There was a sense of elation. The reactor was destroyed and we did not lose a pilot,” said a high-ranking Israeli official. Between 10 and 35 workers at the facility were killed.
A few minutes after the attack, Olmert made a telephone call from his office in the Kirya to President Bush, who was in Australia on a visit. “I just want to report to you that something that existed doesn’t exist anymore,” the prime minister told the president.
The following day, Syria made do with a specious press release according to which its air-defense system had repelled Israeli planes that entered Syrian airspace, and that the attacking aircraft fled after dropping their ordnance “in deserted areas without causing any human or material damage.” The psychological analysis proved accurate: Assad felt sufficiently safe in his “zone of denial” and a military response to the bombing was averted.
Over the weeks to come, Israel informed Jordan and Egypt of the attack, although it asked their leaders to remain silent on the matter. Olmert flew to Moscow and updated the Russian leaders, and subsequently reported on it to the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at a meeting they held in London.
A disagreement developed within the Bush Administration as to the need to expose the matter. Vice President Cheney strongly recommended going public, as part of the campaign he was waging against North Korea and its role in the “axis of evil.” Rice feared that publicity would negatively affect the superpowers’ moves vis-a-vis Pyongyang. Rice won. Only at a later stage did American officials, including President Bush in his memoirs, begin to refer to the attack. To this day, official Israel remains silent about the entire incident.