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Syria incident follow-up/ More Annapolis analysis

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Update from AIJAC

October 17, 2007
Number 10/07 #04

Details are now coming out about that incident last month where Syria alleged an incursion of Israeli planes near the northern border and then made contradictory statements about what happened. The New York Times is now reporting that it is being widely acknowledged by US and other officials that Israel struck a partially constructed nuclear plant that Syria was building with North Korean assistance.

A detailed analysis of what apparently occurred in that incident comes from Douglas Davis and James Forsyth, writing in Britain's Spectator, and relying on British and American sources. The article discusses the reasons to believe the target was nuclear, which now seems a near certainly, and the implications of the Israeli and Syrian silence about the whole incident. It also looks at the regional and proliferation background to this raid. For a reasonably complete discussion of what is now known about the incident and an argument that this was a major event,  CLICK HERE. 

Next up, author and scholar Joshua Muravchik looks at the strategic implications of the Israeli attack, not only in terms of the Middle East, but also in terms of the US's so-called "Bush doctrine" demanding pre-emption of efforts to obtain WMD by terror-supporting states. He explains what the lack of Arab reaction to the incident tells us about the nature of the incident and local attitudes toward Syria, and also examines the inevitable international rethink of the rules of pre-emption in this era of large-scale terrorism and proliferation. For Muravchik's full analysis of what we can learn from the incident, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Prof. Barry Rubin makes a cautious case for the Annapolis peace meeting next month, while at the same time offering realistic analysis of its prospects and likely limited outcome. He explores the positions of the two sides, and calls attention to the neglected Israeli end of the deal. He says not enough focus is being placed on Israel's needs from an agreement -  such as a promise that a two-state resolution really does mean the end of the conflict, a promise to end incitement and prevent terrorism, and agreement to permanently abandon demands to re-settle large numbers of Palestinian refugees inside Israel. For Rubin's important insights into the real logic and facts on the ground which will shape the Annapolis meeting, CLICK HERE. More analysis and discussion of the prospects of the Annapolis conference comes from editorials in Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post, Israeli academic Dan Diker, historian Judith Apter Klinghoffer, and American columnist Wesley Pruden.


‘So close to war’

We came so close to World War Three that day

James Forsyth and Douglas Davis

The Spectator, Wednesday, 3rd October 2007


A meticulously planned, brilliantly executed surgical strike by Israeli jets on a nuclear installation in Syria on 6 September may have saved the world from a devastating threat. The only problem is that no one outside a tight-lipped knot of top Israeli and American officials knows precisely what that threat involved.

Even more curious is that far from pushing the Syrians and Israelis to war, both seem determined to put a lid on the affair. One month after the event, the absence of hard information leads inexorably to the conclusion that the implications must have been enormous.

That was confirmed to The Spectator by a very senior British ministerial source: ‘If people had known how close we came to world war three that day there’d have been mass panic. Never mind the floods or foot-and-mouth — Gordon really would have been dealing with the bloody Book of Revelation and Armageddon.’

According to American sources, Israeli intelligence tracked a North Korean vessel carrying a cargo of nuclear material labelled ‘cement’ as it travelled halfway across the world. On 3 September the ship docked at the Syrian port of Tartous and the Israelis continued following the cargo as it was transported to the small town of Dayr as Zawr, near the Turkish border in north-eastern Syria.

The destination was not a complete surprise. It had already been the subject of intense surveillance by an Israeli Ofek spy satellite, and within hours a band of elite Israeli commandos had secretly crossed into Syria and headed for the town. Soil samples and other material they collected there were returned to Israel. Sure enough, they indicated that the cargo was nuclear.

Three days after the North Korean consignment arrived, the final phase of Operation Orchard was launched. With prior approval from Washington, Israeli F151 jets were scrambled and, minutes later, the installation and its newly arrived contents were destroyed.

So secret were the operational details of the mission that even the pilots who were assigned to provide air cover for the strike jets had not been briefed on it until they were airborne. In the event, they were not needed: built-in stealth technology and electronic warfare systems were sophisticated enough to ‘blind’ Syria’s Russian-made anti-aircraft systems.

What was in the consignment that led the Israelis to mount an attack which could easily have spiralled into an all-out regional war? It could not have been a transfer of chemical or biological weapons; Syria is already known to possess the most abundant stockpiles in the region. Nor could it have been missile delivery systems; Syria had previously acquired substantial quantities from North Korea. The only possible explanation is that the consignment was nuclear.

The scale of the potential threat — and the intelligence methods that were used to follow the transfer — explain the dense mist of official secrecy that shrouds the event. There have been no official briefings, no winks or nudges, from any of the scores of people who must have been involved in the preparation, analysis, decision-making and execution of the operation. Even when Israelis now offer a firm ‘no comment’, it is strictly off the record. The secrecy is itself significant.

Israel is a small country. In some respects, it resembles an extended, if chaotic, family. Word gets around fast. Israelis have lived on the edge for so long they have become addicted to the news. Israel’s media is far too robust and its politicians far too leaky to allow secrets to remain secret for long. Even in the face of an increasingly archaic military censor, Israeli journalists have found ways to publish and, if necessary, be damned.

The only conceivable explanation for this unprecedented silence is that the event was so huge, and the implications for Israeli national security so great, that no one has dared break the rule of omertà. The Arab world has remained conspicuously — and significantly — silent. So, too, have American officials, who might have been expected to ramp up the incident as proof of their warnings about the dangers of rogue states and WMDs. The opposite is true. George Bush stonewalled persistent questions at a press conference last week with the blunt statement: ‘I’m not going to comment on the matter.’ Meanwhile the Americans have carried on dealing with the North Koreans as if nothing has changed.

The Syrian response, when it eventually came, was more forthcoming but no more helpful. First out of the blocks was Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja’afari, who happily announced that nothing had been bombed in Syria and nothing had been damaged.

One week later, Syria’s Vice-President, Farouk a-Shara, agreed that there had, after all, been an attack — on the Arab Centre for the Studies (sic) of Arid Zones and Dry Lands (ACSAD). Brandishing a photograph of the Arab League-run plant, he declared triumphantly: ‘This is the picture, you can see it, and it proves that everything that was said about this attack was wrong.’

Well, perhaps not everything. The following day, ACSAD issued a statement denying that its centre had been targeted: ‘Leaks in the Zionist media concerning this ACSAD station are total inventions and lies,’ it thundered, adding that a tour of the centre was being organised for the media.

On Monday, Syria’s President, Bashar Assad, offered his first observations of the attack. The target, he told the BBC disingenuously, was an unused military building. And he followed that with vows to retaliate, ‘maybe politically, maybe in other ways’.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post noted that the United States had accumulated a growing body of evidence over the past six months — and particularly in the month leading up to the attack — that North Korea was co-operating with Syria on developing a nuclear facility. The evidence, according to the paper, included ‘dramatic satellite imagery that led some US officials to believe the facility could be used to produce material for nuclear weapons’. Even within America’s intelligence community, access to that imagery was restricted to just a handful of individuals on the instructions of America’s National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley.

Why are all sides so reluctant to clarify the details of this extraordinary event? ‘In the Middle East,’ noted Bret Stephens, a senior editorial executive at the Wall Street Journal and an acute observer of the region, ‘that only happens when the interests of prudence and the demands of shame happen to coincide’. He suggested that the ‘least unlikely’ explanation is a partial reprise of the Israeli air strike which destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.

Another of the ‘least unlikely’ possibilities is that Syria was planning to supply its terrorist clients with ‘dirty’ bombs, which would have threatened major cities through­out the world. Terrorism is a growth industry in Syria and it is only natural that, emboldened by its Iranian ally, the Syrian regime should seek to remain the market leader by supplying the ultimate weapon to Hezbollah, Hamas and a plethora of Palestinian rejectionist groups who have been given house-room in Damascus.

The Syrians have good reason to up the ante now. The Alawite regime of Bashar Assad is facing a slew of tough questions in the coming months — most particularly over its alleged role in the murder of the former Lebanese leader, Rafiq Hariri, and its active support for the insurgency in Iraq. Either of these issues could threaten the survival of the regime. How tempting, then, to create a counter-threat that might cause Washington and others to pull their horns in — and perhaps even permit a limited Syrian return to Lebanon?

But that does not explain why the consignment was apparently too large to be sent by air. Look deeper and you find an array of other highly plausible explanations. The North Koreans, under intense international pressure, might have chosen to ‘park’ a significant stockpile of nuclear material in Syria in the expectation of retrieving it when the heat was off. They might also have outsourced part of their nuclear development programme — paying the Syrians to enrich their uranium — while an international team of experts continued inspecting and disabling North Korea’s own nuclear facilities. The shipment might even — and this is well within the ‘least unlikely’ explanations — have been intended to assist Syria’s own nuclear weapons programme, which has been on the cards since the mid-1980s.

Apart from averting the threat that was developing at Dayr as Zawr, Israel’s strategic position has been strengthened by the raid. Firstly, it has — as Major General Amos Yadlin, the head of Israel’s military intelligence, noted — ‘restored its deterrence’, which was damaged by its inept handling of the war in the Lebanon last year. Secondly, it has reminded Damascus that Israel knows what it is up to and is capable of striking anywhere within its territory.

Equally, Iran has been put on notice that Israel will not tolerate any nuclear threat. Washington, too, has been reminded that Israel’s intelligence is often a better guide than its own in the region, a crucial point given the divisions between the Israeli and American intelligence assessments about the development of the Iranian bomb. Hezbollah, the Iranian/Syrian proxy force, has also been put on notice that the air-defence system it boasted would alter the strategic balance in the region is impotent in the face of Israeli technology.

Meanwhile, a senior Israeli analyst told us this week that the most disturbing aspect of the affair from a global perspective is the willingness of states to share their technologies and their weapons of mass destruction. ‘I do not believe that the former Soviet Union shared its WMD technology,’ he said. ‘And they were careful to limit the range of the Scud missiles they were prepared to sell. Since the end of the Cold War, though, we know the Russians significantly exceeded those limits when selling missile technology to Iran.’

But the floodgates were opened wide by the renegade Pakistan nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who is revered in Pakistan as the Father of the Islamic Bomb. Khan established a virtual supermarket of nuclear technologies, parts and plans which operated for more than a decade on a global stage. After his operation was shut down in 2004, Khan admitted transferring technology and parts to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Proliferation experts are convinced they know the identities of at least three of his many other clients: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

In addition to selling nuclear-related knowhow, the Khan network is also believed to have provided Syria with centrifuges for producing enriched uranium. In 2003, concern about Syria’s nuclear ambitions was heightened when an experimental American electronic eavesdropping device picked up distinctive signals indicating that the Syrians had not only acquired the centrifuges but were actually operating them.

If Israel’s military strike on Dayr as Zawr last month was surgical, so, too, was its handling of the aftermath. The only certainty in the fog of cover-up is that something big happened on 6 September — something very big. At the very least, it illustrates that WMD and rogue states pose the single greatest threat to world peace. We may have escaped from this incident without war, but if Iran is allowed to continue down the nuclear path, it is hard to believe that we will be so lucky again.

Douglas Davis is a former senior editor of the Jerusalem Post and James Forsyth is online editor of The Spectator.


------------------------------------------------------------------------

Preemption, Israeli style

The muted reaction to a recent attack on Syria may give new life to the Bush doctrine.

By Joshua Muravchik

Los Angeles Times, October 14, 2007

Last month, one of the more mysterious episodes in the history of the Arab-Israel conflict began to leak slowly into the news. Although the facts are still unconfirmed, what seems to have happened has major implications not only for the region but even more for the laws of war and preemption that President Bush has been trying to redefine ever since his 2002 national security strategy paper.

First, Syrian spokesmen complained that Israeli planes had violated their country's airspace on Sept. 6 -- and had been driven off, or so they said. Within a few days came stories -- mostly from anonymous sources -- that the planes had fired into Syria; these were followed by still other stories that a target had in fact been hit. But what was it?

After further journalistic digging, the most plausible accounts said that the Syrian targets were related to nuclear weapons activity and may even have been manned by North Koreans. Later reports suggest some dispute within the U.S. government about how far Syria had progressed in achieving its nuclear ambitions, but these same reports confirm that this is what Israel was targeting.

The obscurity of this episode results in part from uncharacteristically tight lips in Jerusalem and Damascus. But that is not the whole of the reason. There has also been a deafening silence from the international community and especially from the other states of the region. This highly unusual reaction is one of the oddest parts of the whole episode and, in some ways, the most meaningful.

Ordinarily, the Arab states in the region are quick to condemn any warlike act by Israel, even measures as defensive as building a barrier against terrorists. Although many Arab states are unhappy these days with Syria's budding alliance with Iran, Israel is still, to one degree or another, the enemy, and Syria is, at worst, a wayward brother. So why were the Arab states suddenly mum about this invasion of Syria's sovereignty?

Their reticence -- and that of the rest of the international community, including the United States and Western Europe -- suggests, I think, that even though most governments believed that this was indeed a blow against Syrian nuclear ambitions, none of them, frankly, were displeased to see it happen. The fact is that virtually every government in the world, regardless of its feelings about Israel, recognizes that a Syrian nuclear weapons program would make the Middle East and the world more dangerous. True, Israel already has such weapons, to the dismay of many others, especially its neighbors. But few see a Syrian nuclear arsenal as an antidote.

Syria has a history of belligerence. Apart from initiating war against Israel in 1948 and 1973, and helping provoke it in 1967, it has also occupied Lebanon, and it threatened to invade Jordan during "Black September" of 1970 until deterred by U.S. and Israeli counteraction. It also helps arm Hezbollah and succors other violent groups.

Even a more sympathetic interpretation of Syria's past actions would not diminish the terrifying prospect of a nuclear rivalry in the region. Just this summer, rumblings of a possible war had military leaders on edge in Damascus and Jerusalem. Replay that scenario with both sides armed with nuclear weapons, and it becomes far scarier still.

Between these two small, contiguous states, there would be little room for a "second strike" doctrine of the kind that deterred war between the superpowers for five decades. In a crisis, each side's strategists would have to weigh carefully the advantages of striking first and wonder whether the other was thinking the same thing.

In addition, a Syrian nuclear program would stimulate wider proliferation. The prospect of an Iranian bomb has stirred new interest in nuclear programs in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other nearby states. Were Syria to head in the same direction, the impetus to avoid being left behind would be intense.

What does all this have to do with Bush's preemption doctrine? Although the president's stand evoked more criticism than support, part of it was hard to gainsay. The right of self-defense has always been understood to include the possibility of preemptive self-defense. Hugo Grotius, the 17th century Dutch philosopher who laid the foundations for international law, wrote that "it be lawful to kill him who is preparing to kill," although he also acknowledged that this principle could be dangerous.

Bush's claim was that whereas "preparing to kill" once entailed mobilizing armies that could be spotted by the potential victim, today's technology makes possible a devastating blow without any visible prelude. Hence, he argued, preemption had to be understood more broadly. In non-legalese, he put it: "We will not allow the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most dangerous weapons."

Critics argued that Bush was advocating not preemption but "preventive war." They said that using force to deny another state the capability to attack you was far different from using force to thwart an imminent attack. They asked what would be the limits of such a right, and to this Bush had no ready answer.

On the other hand, the critics had no answer to Bush's point that modern technology created a new danger of a devastating surprise attack against which states would reasonably want some defense. The U.N.'s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change acknowledged the force of the argument that "the potential harm from some threats (e.g., terrorists armed with a nuclear weapon) is so great that one simply cannot risk waiting until they become imminent." However, it said that in such cases, the party feeling threatened should bring its concern before the Security Council.

But given the United Nations' bias against Israel, it is hard to counsel Jerusalem to trust the Security Council. Indeed, given the council's historic impotence, few states would be likely to rely on it if they believed their safety was at stake.

The dilemma of preemption that first troubled Grotius has grown more acute with time. Israel was condemned by the Security Council in 1981 for bombing Osirik to abort Iraq's nuclear program, but when Saddam Hussein launched wars against Iran and Kuwait, many governments were pleased in retrospect that Israeli had pulled some of his fangs.

This latest episode suggests that an intense rethinking is underway in many capitals. Take away the nuclear issue and imagine a report that Israeli warplanes had flown over Syria, unprovoked, and had bombed ordinary military targets. The Arab states would have been up in arms, seconded by the other Muslim and "nonaligned" states and even Europe. The United States in all likelihood would have chastised Israel more gently and would probably have abstained, rather than vetoing a Security Council condemnation of Israel.

But instead, Israel received only pro forma rebukes -- apparently because it had blocked a weapon that no one wanted Damascus to have.

Law is largely a matter of practice and custom, and it is gradually changing to accommodate new realms of self-defense. Had American forces found nuclear weapons in Iraq, or a nuclear program nearly ready to produce weapons, the international assessment of our decision to invade would be very different today. That we made an appalling mistake about Iraqi WMD shows the risks of the new doctrine that Bush proposes -- but it does not diminish the issue that gave rise to that doctrine.

The evolution of our thinking about these issues will be at the forefront of the debate as Washington moves closer to a preemptive (or "preventive") strike against Iran's nuclear program.

Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


------------------------------------------------------------------------

And What Do We Get?

Barry Rubin

GLORIA, October 14, 2007

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is about to be the topic of an international summit and optimism is breaking out all over.

A breakthrough to comprehensive peace, however, is very unlikely. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip; the Palestinian Authority (PA)-Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is weak; Fatah is still overwhelmingly radical and has not conducted the internal debate—much less public education effort—necessary for a change of policy.

At the same time, however, a situation breeding persistent crisis and violence won’t go away. It is important to try to prevent the conflict from growing worse, including a possible Hamas takeover on the West Bank or full-scale war. If this is a long-term stalemate it need be structured in a way conducive to greater stability. And if it is possible to move even a bit toward building an eventual peace that is a good thing.

So the immediate question is whether intensive Israel-PA talks and the summit meeting can keep the mess from getting worse or even help bring some modest improvement.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stated, "We must give negotiations a chance. Israel has excellent excuses to justify stagnation in the talks. I don't mean to look for excuses. I'm determined to give a chance to a meaningful diplomatic process….”

Or, in other words, even though we have every reason not to negotiate with an unstable regime that cannot meet commitments, we’re willing to try in hopes that it could work. That makes sense, albeit with reservations expressed below.

Olmert explained, "The current Palestinian leadership is not a terrorist leadership. [Abbas] and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are committed to all the agreements signed with Israel, and I believe that they want to move ahead together with us…."

Olmert chose his words carefully. Abbas and Fayyad want peace and would like to keep their agreements. But he would find it hard to provide any more names to that list. Most Fatah leaders don’t think that way. And even those who “want” to advance probably cannot and will not do so. They may not personally promote terrorism but do little to stop it, even failing to curb the extremism of official PA-controlled media.

Is it worth trying talks? Yes. Aside from showing the world Israel’s peaceful intentions there might be small successes. The level of conflict could be lowered, PA-Fatah preserved, international help obtained, Arab states brought into deeper engagement.

Yet in almost all this discussion, debate, international policymaking, and media coverage there is a missing element. There’s lots of talk about what Palestinians want, and what Israel might or should give, in negotiations. But there is virtually nothing said about what Israel should get for running these risks and making these concessions.

Or, as Bob Dylan put it, "Oh, no, no I've been through this movie before!” The PA-Fatah demands are clear: An independent Palestinian state with capital in east Jerusalem and borders on the 1948-1967 era ceasefire lines. All Palestinian refugees and their descendants must be allowed to live in Israel; all Palestinian prisoners, no matter how many Israeli civilians they deliberately murdered, released.

We know all this already. The return idea is unacceptable and this won’t change. It is a sign of Palestinian insincerity since the goal is to wipe Israel off the map. If Palestinians want a state of their own they would insist the refugees settle there. Prisoners might be released only if it is certain they will not return to terrorism either because a Palestinian government allowed it or even encouraged them to do so.

Israel is ready to accept an independent state. There is debate about east Jerusalem and the 1967 lines but a solution could be found. For example, in 2000 Israel’s government offered most of east Jerusalem and almost all the West Bank, with territorial swaps to make up for any land annexed by Israel.

But what does the Palestinian side offer Israel? That is very unclear. What does “peace” mean? A full end of the conflict? An energetic will to stop anti-Israel incitement and cross-border terrorism? And what of Hamas? The following points are what the Palestinian side must give. None of them are too onerous, especially compared to the rewards they would get:
  • The conflict would be ended. Over. Finished.
  • Palestinian refugees would be resettled in Palestine.
  • The PA-Fatah-PLO would energetically work to bring Arab states into the peace arrangement.
  • Palestine would block terrorist attacks from its territory on Israel by force if needed and stop the systematic incitement of hatred, certainly on the official level, against Israel.
  • No foreign troops would be permitted on Palestine’s territory.
There also has to be serious international recognition, safeguards, and guarantees for the risks Israel is taking. Israel is negotiating with people who have no control over much of the territory or people on whose behalf they speak.

Hamas will reject any agreement and do everything possible to wreck it, including killing PA leaders and launching terrorist attacks to force Fatah to guard Israel’s borders or throw away the agreement. Israel is negotiating with people who have no control over much of the territory or people on whose behalf they speak.

Beyond this, if Hamas were to take over the West Bank or any Palestinian state, it would immediately restart the conflict, using Israeli concessions to be more deadly.

And there’s more bad news If Abbas and Fayyad made a deal along the above lines—or ones even better for the Palestinians—all the supporters of Hamas and smaller radical groups plus up to half or more of Fatah itself would denounce them as traitors and reject the agreement.

Focusing only on what Israel must give and ignoring the other side of the equation is a formula for continuing conflict.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center http://gloria.idc.ac.il and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (GLORIA) Center http://meria.idc.ac.il. His latest books are The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).

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