Friday, October 26, 2007

Secrecy Still Surrounds Israeli Strike in Syria

A cloud of secrecy still hovers around the Israeli airstrikes in Syria on September 6. However, two interesting developments have occurred over the past week, one that may soon help to provide answers to numerous unanswered questions, and one that may make those answers more elusive. The IAEA has begun an investigation into the bombings, and Syria has begun dismantling the targeted facility.

Before and after satellite images of the site
(photo from the Institute for
Science and International Security)

Though the U.S. confirmed on September 11 that Israel did in fact launch airstrikes in Syria, few other questions have been answered by unusually quiet Israeli and American officials. Claims that Israel may have struck a nuclear facility linked to North Korea - potentially a huge blow to the recent diplomatic successes in that country as well - emerged early on, and Israeli and North Korean officials have vehemently denied the accusations. Current investigations will hopefully soon provide answers.

Reportedly, U.S. intelligence officials just released to the IAEA satellite images of the attacked site. As George Jahen of the Associated Press reports, this is a crucial step - the first instance of a respected independent group looking for answers to the question of what was hit. Some American officials have stated that the facility appeared similar to a “small but substantial” nuclear reactor in North Korea, but the IAEA has not yet substantiated those reports.

Another news report released the same day stated that Syrian officials had begun to dismantle the site. Even if Syria is honest in claiming that it only has one nuclear facility - which is already known and monitored by the IAEA - this recent action does nothing to reduce suspicions that they had something to hide.

Perhaps, however, they did have nothing to hide. Some experts, including William Arkin, claim that it is illogical and therefore unlikely that North Korea would have provided nuclear weapons know-how and materials to Syria. He argues that the likelihood that they could develop a bomb under a covert weapons program is extremely low.

The possibility that Israeli intelligence did find, however, accurate evidence of a nuclear facility, raises new issues. First are the obvious dangers to non-proliferation and the impact that a covert Syrian weapons program would have on relations in the volatile Middle East. Additionally, however, are concerns related to the response of members of the international community.

Why did Israel feel inclined and authorized to take unilateral military action against the site? Had they reported it to the IAEA, an investigation would have certainly ensued. Arguably, an investigation and potential intervention by the independent and authorized U.N. nuclear watch-dog would have had a better chance at dissuading Syria from pursuing such a program in the long term. Aggressive action by the Israeli military, on the other hand, is much more likely to put even those who would have been opposed to the site on the defensive.

Unfortunately no potential answers will result in positive developments in the already-tenuous relationship between Israel and Syria. The ideal answer - the revelation of no nuclear weapons program in Syria - will reflect poorly on the Israeli choice to strike, while the presence of an undeclared nuclear facility linked to North Korea will have serious implications for the stability of the Israeli-Syria border, wider relations in the Middle East, as well as the nuclear deal with North Korea.

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