September 18, 2007 | Commentary on Middle East
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 facility.
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 Arabs' expense).
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 explosion.
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 States."
First appeared in the New York Post