September 18, 2007
By Peter Brookes
With Congress' hearings on Iraq grabbing the nation's attention
last week, hardly anyone took notice of the news that Israel may
have conducted a military air strike on a suspected nuclear
facility in northern Syria.
Yes, that's right: a possible Syrian nuclear
Originally, it was believed the early-September raid by Israeli
fighters was against an Iranian weapons shipment crossing Syria en
route to Lebanon, where Hezbollah is rearming at a feverish pace
since its 2006 war with Israel.
But speculation on the nature of the Israeli mission into Syria
has spread like wildfire - thanks to official and unofficial
chatter about the strike's real target.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates refused to comment on the Sunday
morning news shows. But late last week a senior State Department
official involved in nuclear-nonproliferation issues told The
Associated Press: "There are indicators that they [Syria] do have
something going on there [at the facility that was struck by the
Israelis]. We do know that there are a number of foreign
technicians that have been in Syria."
The official added: "We do know that there may have been contact
between Syria and some secret suppliers for nuclear equipment.
Whether anything transpired remains to be seen."
Iran and Syria are allies, so Tehran naturally comes to mind as
the source of any nuclear material for Damascus. But some believe
that Syria's super-secret supplier may instead be North Korea. Most
sources are linking the Israeli raid to the arrival of a North
Korean ship that docked recently in the Syrian port of Tartus.
(North Korean ships are notoriously up to no good: smuggling
illegal weapons, spies, drugs or other contraband.)
Naturally, all the suspects deny everything. Yet Syria's been
relatively unmiffed by the Israeli raid, further
suggesting that something dubious is up.
Damascus is known to have spent considerable time, effort and
money on acquiring ballistic missiles as well as chemical and
(maybe) biological weapons. So it's certainly possible that the
Syrian regime has begun some kind of clandestine nuclear-weapons
program, too. (It has a small, publicly acknowledged,
Chinese-supplied nuclear research reactor.)
Syria is a military munchkin, still smarting from the loss of
the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War in 1967 and its humiliating
2005 withdrawal from Lebanon. It's struggling economically and has
seen its stature in the Arab world sink precipitously due to its
chummy ties with Iran (which aims to dominate the region at the
Meanwhile, Damascus can certainly see the progress Iran is
making in its nuclear-weapons program, all while thumbing
its nose at the international community. Perhaps President Bashar
al-Assad asked, Why not us, too? Nukes would give him the
clout and prestige he so desperately covets.
What about North Korea's involvement?
It's certainly possible. Just last October, Pyongyang exploded
its first nuclear device, proving its ability to produce sufficient
fissile material and successfully engineer a low-yield nuclear
With its economy a basket case, North Korea is always looking
for an influx of cold, hard cash; its No. 1 export is the sale of
ballistic missiles abroad. Pyongyang could have decided to add a
profitable line in trading in nuclear material and know-how.
(Of course, others say Syria's nuclear supplier could be the
remnants of Pakistani nuclear proliferator A.Q. Khan's network. His
ring supposedly approached Damascus years ago, but Syria declined,
thinking it was a hoax.)
Another proposition is that North Korea is trying to stash its
nuclear stuff in Syria before it has to come clean as part of
denuclearization talks now under way with its neighbors and the
United States. That might explain why Damascus has been mum on the
Israeli strike: The loss was North Korea's, not Syria's.
It's also possible the shipment was from North Korea to
Iran. (The two rogue regimes have ties.) Perhaps
Pyongyang decided it would stand a better chance of making the
delivery via Syria, instead of running a gauntlet of U.S. Navy
ships in the Persian Gulf.
Clearly, there are still a lot of ifs on this one. But
if Israeli intelligence is correct and the strike
was on a Syrian nuclear facility involving North Korea, we
may have a whole new set of problems on our hands - and policy
adjustments to make.
Peter Brookes is
the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue
First appeared in the New York Post
With Congress' hearings on Iraq grabbing the nation's attention last week, hardly anyone took notice of the news that Israel may have conducted a military air strike on a suspected nuclear facility in northern Syria.
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
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