Revealed for the First Time: A Mission in Syria That Never Took Place

Israel has never admitted to the 2007 bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor. This is the inside story of how the facility's existence was established and how it was destroyed.

Yossi Melman
Dan Raviv
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Yossi Melman
Dan Raviv

The Mossad director, Meir Dagan, was on his way to a routine chat with the prime minister, on Ehud Olmert's once-a-week day in Tel Aviv. When Israel's leader had a secret talk scheduled, his office calendar showed two Hebrew letters, peh and aleph, an abbreviation for pgisha ishit, "personal meeting." Usually, the term referred to conversations with the chiefs of the Mossad, Shin Bet security service, Military Intelligence and the Israel Atomic Energy Commission.

On this spring day in 2007, Dagan was intending to brief Olmert on various intelligence matters, with nothing unusual on the agenda. Halfway from the Mossad's headquarters at Glilot, near Herzliya, to the prime minister's modest, two-story office in the Kirya [defense establishment] compound, in central Tel Aviv, however, Dagan received a phone call.

His chief intelligence officer had news, but worded it cautiously. "That thing we are working on? It's certain."

Dagan immediately understood, and he told the chief analyst to rush to the Kirya to join the meeting with Olmert. The two senior Mossad men laid out for the prime minister what Israeli spy satellites - and now spies on the ground - had been able to verify was taking place in a remote part of eastern Syria, about 300 miles northeast of Damascus. The Syrians were close to completing construction of a nuclear reactor.

The Mossad's "unconventional weapons" researchers assessed that the reactor was closely modeled on a North Korean design, was being built with the help of advisers from that country, and that the goal was to produce plutonium as the fissile material for bombs. The site was called Al-Kibar, according to Syrian officials in phone calls intercepted by MI's Unit 8200. The Mossad had also gotten its hands on photos, apparently taken by Syrians, showing the inside of the building, and of a visit by a senior North Korean nuclear official.

Olmert had become prime minister only in January of the previous year, when Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke and could no longer serve in the position. Hearing about Syria's secret project, he turned grimly serious. "What are we going to do about it?" he asked reflexively.

Within minutes, it was clear that the question had been rhetorical. The two Mossad men and the prime minister all knew that Israel would have to demolish the Syrian reactor.

A.Q. Khan

On Christmas Eve 2003, the world woke up to dramatic news: Colonel Muammar Gadhafi's Libya was giving up its weapons of mass destruction, which included a nascent nuclear program and a large arsenal of chemical weapons. The announcement took Israel's intelligence services completely by surprise, and the heads of those services did not like surprises.

What really grabbed the Israeli agencies about the Libya story was the revelation that Gadhafi's nuclear program had been born out of the efforts and expertise of the Pakistani merchant of atomic knowhow, Abdul Qadeer Khan.

At the time, Dagan and his chief intelligence officer wondered to themselves: Since they missed the whole Libyan deal, what else had they missed? After the new year, the Mossad's research department was ordered to go back into its archives and examine every piece of humint and sigint information it had accumulated, in the past decade, about Khan's activities as a nuclear traveling salesman.

Intelligence agencies often gather more data than they can read and analyze, and individual intercepts and data points are not always immediately pieced together into a coherent mosaic. The Mossad realized that - in addition to Libya - Khan had traveled to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria. Further evaluation led to the conclusion that the Saudis and Egyptians, being in the American camp, would be less likely to undertake a nuclear program.

Syria could be a different case. It was anti-American, making overtures to Iran, and supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon more than ever. The then-new Syrian dictator, Bashar Assad, was inexperienced, and might miscalculate, in his ambition to outdo his late father, Hafez.

The more Mossad researchers dug, the more they found, until they unearthed evidence that was alarming. They noticed that Syria, at the start of the 21st century, had had clandestine contacts with North Korea that were difficult to explain. This realization took place three years after they start of those contacts, and the Mossad would later be irritated by accusations that it had been deaf and blind for seven years. It was really "only" three years.

These contacts were not about the already-known cooperation in the field of Scud missiles. There was something else going on, and it was secret, high level and troubling.

Dagan had his agency turn to the CIA and other friendly liaison links to ask whether they were aware of any nuclear contacts between North Korea and Syria. They all knew about missile sales and cooperation between Damascus and Pyongyang. Yet, neither the Americans nor the French (the latter having relatively good coverage of Syria due to their colonial past there ) knew a thing about nuclear links.

Israeli intelligence realized that it would have to rely on itself. That was a commonly held view in Israel on many topics, even when international cooperation seemed to be available. "It's part of their ethos," commented Dennis Ross, a longtime Middle East adviser to American presidents, "not to contract out their security."

Within the Israeli intelligence community, through most of 2007, there was an urgent sense of being faced with a new mystery in Syria. This was, therefore, no time to re-open the old Mossad-MI argument about who had missed Libya's weapons program. The divisions were healed. MI had Unit 8200 improve its eavesdropping on Syrian communications and signals. Israeli satellites, first launched in 1988, were reoriented so that their orbits would put them over Syria more often. The Mossad's agent-running department, Tzomet, was instructed to do all it could to penetrate Syria's leadership and to uncover Damascus' mysterious, unresolved contacts with North Korea.

This substantial extra work for Israeli intelligence required additional budgetary resources. Dagan turned to Prime Minister Olmert to ask for more money and found, in Olmert, an ally. "Whatever you need," was the response, "you'll get it."

With the increased funding, Israel's air force now was able to do a lot more high-altitude reconnaissance flights. Intelligence analysts were working much longer hours, poring over photos taken by Israeli satellites.

Some of the information was from signals intelligence sources - intercepted communications. But that was far from easy to acquire. It seemed that only a very few Syrians knew what was going on. Israeli intelligence tried to listen in on all their conversations, including those of President Assad and his close adviser and coordinator of covert projects, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Suleiman.

The combined espionage effort was zeroing in on several places and projects deemed highly suspicious. The first breakthrough came in the form of a building, seen in reconnaissance photos: 40 meters square, and about 21 meters tall, situated within a military complex in the desert in northeastern Syria, not far from the Euphrates river. The Syrians tried to block aerial views of whatever was being built by assembling a large roof over the scene. That indicated that something was being constructed, and in a big way, but Israeli agencies could not tell what was inside.

The next, crucial step would involve risking the lives of Israelis: sending operatives into Syria to get close, to see what the Syrians were building. For a variety of operational reasons, a decision was made to send combatants of the Mossad's Kidon unit - who excelled at sensitive, dangerous surveillance, as well as assassinations - in addition to an army special forces unit.

They sampled the soil, water and vegetation around the site, but did not find any traces of radioactive materials. Yet, other evidence they carried back to Israel did lead to pieces of the puzzle falling into place. The solution to the mystery began to reveal itself. It truly was a nuclear project.

Centrifuges, or a reactor?

The teams returned there on several further reconnaissance missions and obtained, every time, additional information. It became clear that North Korean experts were helping Syria build a nuclear facility. Unknown was whether it was a collection of centrifuges, which would take a long time to enrich uranium for bombs, or a nuclear reactor, which could, alarmingly, provide plutonium for bombs more quickly. And how close to completion was the project?

The answer would have significance. Depending on what they learned, Israeli leaders might feel they would have to bomb the building urgently, or they might decide they had time to wait and see.

All these dilemmas were resolved in March of 2007, when the most important and incriminating information was gathered. This was information that can be compared to a "smoking gun." It surfaced as a result of a grave mistake in data protection on the part of someone at the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission, who flew from Damascus to a meeting in a European capital and took along with him various documents on a portable computer.

People in the Mossad operations units Caesarea and Neviot infiltrated his room and copied the documentation. It emerged that this was a treasure house of information. Moreover, the Syrian scientists had also taken along photographs of the suspicious building. These clearly testified that the structure was not an installation for enriching uranium but rather a nuclear reactor.

There was now strong pictorial evidence that Syria was building a graphite reactor of the Yongbyon type, which had been used by North Korea to make its own nuclear bombs. Israel understood that the communist pariah state, always desperate for hard currency, sold its technology for the money. Even more important and troubling was Israel's assessment that the reactor could be ready to "go hot" within a few months, after which it would take a little over a year to produce enough plutonium for a nuclear bomb.

One more piece of evidence was troubling. Large pipes and a pumping station, for cooling the reactor with water from the Euphrates, seemed to be complete, and ready for use.

An additional item of data would contribute to Israel's decision-making process. The Mossad concluded that Iran had no role whatsoever in the construction of the reactor. Despite a growing friendship between Syria and Iran, the Iranians were not privy to the secret. An alliance between nations, however close, is still restrained by a large degree of compartmentalization.

That was the cumulative information about Syria that Dagan and his chief intelligence officer were bringing to Tel Aviv for their briefing with Olmert - a meeting that concluded with a consensus that the building would have to be flattened.

Waters of the Potomac

Faced with a huge decision, any Israeli prime minister, early on, tests the waters of the Potomac to hear what the American administration has to say. Olmert dispatched Dagan, whose main question to the Pentagon and the CIA was: Do you guys know about this? They did not.

Olmert, on a visit to Washington in June 2007, addressed President Bush face to face: "George, I am asking you to bomb the compound."

Bush decided, however, that bombing Syria without obvious provocation would cause "severe blowback." The prime minister concluded that, if action were needed, Israel would have to do it alone. Olmert found himself suddenly in the same position that Menachem Begin had been in in 1981 [when he was faced with Iraq's construction of a nuclear reactor outside Baghdad]. He now had to decide whether he would carry on with the "Begin Doctrine" - that no enemy of Israel would be allowed to have nuclear weapons.

Consulting with very few advisers, Olmert reached a decision that he would follow the Begin line.

Olmert slightly expanded the number of people who were involved in these discussions. Over a matter of weeks, he hosted five serious meetings of his inner cabinet - 14 people in all - with every minister encouraged to express his or her genuine views.

The ministers were helped to come to a conclusive decision by the knowledge that the Israeli intelligence community and the military, this time, spoke with one voice. Unlike the deliberations leading to the 1981 Osirak attack, all the intelligence agency chiefs, their deputies and their top analysts favored demolishing Syria's reactor project. These men included Dagan, MI chief Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, who was one of the pilots who struck Iraq in 1981, and the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi.

A strong consensus seemed to be emerging within the cabinet too. Ministers supported Olmert's position that - in the spirit of Begin - Syria would have to be stopped from acquiring nuclear weapons. But there was one very prominent exception.

To the astonishment of his colleagues, Ehud Barak, the defense minister, kept voicing strong objections. He did not say that he was, in principle, opposed to bombing Syria, but he suggested that Israel still had time, that there was no need to hurry.

The decisive factor regarding whether to bomb the reactor was the question of Syrian retaliation. Israeli intelligence knew that Syria's powerful missiles were always on standby, and, if an order were given, within about six hours they could hit any target that was chosen in Israel. Destinations were pre-set: from the Dimona reactor in the Negev, to the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, to the Knesset in Jerusalem, as well as air bases, power stations and other key facilities.

If Israel believed there was a likelihood of Syrian retaliation, then preparation of the home front would normally be necessary. That, however, would require mobilization of reservists and civil defense workers, which would be detected by the Syrians. That could lead to a miscalculation. Syria might even preemptively strike Israel, and an all-out war could result.

The decision required on the part of Olmert and his cabinet seemed momentous. Ministers considered the possibility of Israelis facing thousands of retaliatory missiles, flying in from Syria and from Hezbollah in Lebanon. Some might even carry chemical weapons.

Despite those dark thoughts, the inner cabinet voted, 13 to 1, for an attack. Even Barak voted yes. The only no came from the former Shin Bet director, Avi Dichter, now a cabinet minister from Olmert's Kadima party, who feared the bloody toll that might be inflicted on Israeli civilians by Syrian retaliation.

On the night of the attack, September 6, 2007, Olmert was in the bor (the Pit ), the IDF's situation room at the Kirya, flanked by a few assistants and military generals. Eight F-16s took off from a base in northern Israel, flying westward, northward, and then eastward into Syria. Unlike the "stupid" heavy bombs used in the Osirak attack 26 years earlier, this time Israel used "smart" weapons. Shortly after midnight, the pilots fired precision missiles from a safe distance. Within two minutes, the attack was over.

To keep the Israelis safe, their advanced electronics jammed and blinded Syria's air-defense system. So sophisticated was the electronic warfare that the Syrian radar seemed to be working just fine, even when it was not. Syria's defense personnel had no idea that their system, which detected absolutely nothing, was down.

The Israeli pilots adhered to radio silence and communicated with headquarters only after about 90 minutes. Olmert, other top politicians, and the officers were relieved and delighted to hear that the target was destroyed. Despite their calculation that Syria would not retaliate, they could not rule out the possibility. To minimize the chances of that, therefore, a firm decision was made to keep the entire affair secret. If President Assad was not publicly humiliated, he might well decide to say or do nothing. Indeed, Israel still has never publicly confirmed that it hit Syria that night.

A war of misinformation would follow. The Syrians apparently did not know what to make of Israel's silence. Fearing that Israel might announce it first and embarrass them, the Syrians declared they had repelled an Israeli air incursion. Later, they said that Israel had bombed a deserted military structure. They also pointed to the one mistake the Israeli air force made as evidence of the incident: One of the pilots, on the way home, released an auxiliary fuel tank from his F-16. The tank, which had Hebrew markings on it, was found in a field in Turkey. Deniability would now be more difficult.

After Syria's government started talking about an Israeli attack, word leaked from Israel that the target had been a nuclear facility. Syrian officials adamantly denied it. They refused, for months, to let the International Atomic Energy Agency visit the site; in the meantime, the Syrians cleared away all the rubble and replaced the soil. Finally, when international inspectors were allowed in, they detected a few traces of uranium. Syria claimed these were from uranium-tipped Israeli missiles.

The IAEA concluded that the structure, now gone, was a North Korea-type nuclear reactor. This finding was bolstered by a fairly complete report made public by the CIA. Intelligence agencies discovered that dozens of people had been killed within the building, both Syrians and North Koreans. North Korea, though, never said a word about it.

Israeli intelligence prepared dossiers to be sent to foreign government leaders and friendly intelligence agencies. But the closest cooperation was with the United States. Olmert spoke again with President Bush, and Dagan flew to Washington to give briefings - even meeting the president at the White House. Both sides seemed comfortable with the fact that Israel had not informed the Americans, in any detailed way, before the bombing raid. Deniability was preserved.

Intelligence professionals at the CIA and in the Pentagon praised Israel for having precise information and for being decisive and leak-proof.

While Israel proved to the Middle East that the Begin Doctrine was still in place, the mission was incomplete for Dagan and the Mossad.

On August 1, 2008, President Assad's close aide Mohammed Suleiman was felled by a single bullet. He was sitting on the terrace of his villa on the Syrian coastline, enjoying the Mediterranean breeze while entertaining guests for dinner. Apparently, no one noticed that an Israeli naval vessel was anchored offshore, with an expert sniper on deck. The ship was bobbing on the sea, of course. Yet one shot, at a great distance, did the job. The general was killed, but his guests were unharmed.

No less impressive was the precision of the information gathered about Suleiman's party: what time it would start, and where he would be sitting.

The mission, thus accomplished, was to send a message to his master, the Syrian president: Don't mess with us. Another objective was getting rid of a powerful official who was involved with Syria's very special relations with both Hezbollah and Iran.

This article first appeared, in somewhat different form, in the book "Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars," by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman, published recently by Levant Books.

Clockwise from upper left: Avi Dichter, Bashar Assad, Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and Meir Dagan.Credit: Hagai Aharon/Jini, AP, Alex Kolomoisy, Michal Fattal and Moti Milrod
The site of the Syrian reactor, before the attack.Credit: Reuters
The site of the Syrian reactor, after the attack.Credit: Reuters