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Confusion Reigns


I really don’t know what to think about the airstrike on Syria at this point. The allegations regarding Syria’s nuclear program seem to be getting increasingly detailed. Peter at Duck has some links, including a summary of the latest Times of London article on an Israeli commando incursion into Syria. As Josh Landis notes, if the account is true, then Assad needs to fire everyone associated with operational security now:

ISRAELI commandos from the elite Sayeret Matkal unit – almost certainly dressed in Syrian uniforms – made their way stealthily towards a secret military compound near Dayr az-Zawr in northern Syria. They were looking for proof that Syria and North Korea were collaborating on a nuclear programme.

Israel was determined not to take any chances with its neighbour. Following the example set by its raid on an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak 1981, it drew up plans to bomb the Syrian compound. But Washington was not satisfied. It demanded clear evidence of nuclear-related activities before giving the operation its blessing. The task of the commandos was to provide it.

Today the site near Dayr az-Zawr lies in ruins after it was pounded by Israeli F15Is on September 6. Before the Israelis issued the order to strike, the commandos had secretly seized samples of nuclear material and taken them back into Israel for examination by scientists, the sources say. A laboratory confirmed that the unspecified material was North Korean in origin. America approved an attack.

But there are still a lot of things that don’t make sense to me. What exactly were the North Koreans selling? Given what we know about the state of the Syrian nuclear program, I doubt very much that they could have done anything with any material other than enriched uranium, at least in the short term. Syria is extremely unlikely to have had the capacity to construct a plutonium device, especially not one that could fit on the top of a Scud. That North Korea might have been supplying general support for the Syrian nuclear program makes a little bit more sense. It seems like a strange time for North Korea to be actively proliferating, but North Korea is a strange country, so whatever. The notion (floating around in some circles) that North Korea was sending stuff to Syria so that nuclear inspectors won’t find it is abjectly silly; there are plenty of places to hid stuff in North Korea that would be more secure than the project of loading equipment into a ship, unloading it at destination, etc. I also have to wonder about Washington’s “demand for clear evidence.” Since when has Israel waited for American permission to launch an airstrike? And since when has the Bush administration cared about the strength of such evidentiary claims?

The timing of the release of info also seems strange. The Israelis are, officially, being rather tight-lipped about this, but someone familiar with the operations is obviously talking, and giving a lot of detail. Journalists don’t get info of the above detail unless the leakers have a political purpose, and someone in Israel is clearly trying to control the story. This doesn’t mean that the Israeli info is false, and the fact that the above account includes a lot of detail should probably count in its favor, but it’s still too early to give it full credence, especially when we don’t yet have a full account or understanding of what Syria and North Korea might have been doing.

A piece of advice for North Korea: If indeed North Korean engineers and scientists were killed doing something illicit in Syria, it probably wasn’t a terrific idea to get publicly indignant.

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