Burst of Interest in Israel’s Secret Destruction of Syria Nuclear Reactor — Model for Striking Iran?

by Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv

The venerable New Yorker magazine <http://nyr.kr/QyamTc>  commissioned a think tank scholar, David Makovsky, to investigate Israel’s destruction of a nuclear reactor that was under construction in remote northeastern Syria.  His article appeared this week, as part of the “Annals of War” series.

Makovsky <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Makovsky> – an American who worked for newspapers in Israel and came out of retirement for this journalistic assignment – apparently found the fifth anniversary of the successful mission by the Israeli air force a fascinating opportunity to discuss a covert operation.  The additional appeal was that destroying Syria’s tiny nuclear program could perhaps be seen as a model for an Israeli attack on Iran.

CIA photos of Syria’s reactor, before and after the Israeli airraid in September 2007

Our own book trod similar ground, and we’ll permit ourselves to note humbly that Spies Against Armageddon came out in July.  At the time, our revelations about Mossad operations inside Iran grabbed the headlines < http://nyti.ms/SBMOAy > and < http://bit.ly/PnMW3K >, but there did not appear to be intense interest in the bombing raid that flattened Syria’s reactor in September 2007.

Makovsky’s article begins with how the Mossad obtained key evidence – by breaking into the Vienna home of a Syrian official, thus finding photographs of North Korean nuclear experts working with Syrians at the secret site.

We approach the subject by explaining why Israeli intelligence stepped up its efforts to learn about any Syrian activities in the nuclear field.  The reason was Libya.  Here is an excerpt from our Chapter 24, “Enforcing Monopoly”:

On Christmas Eve 2003, the world woke up to a public announcement: Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya was giving up its weapons of mass destruction, which included a nascent nuclear program and a large arsenal of chemical weapons. 

The announcement took Israeli intelligence completely by surprise, and its directors did not like surprises.  The Mossad claimed that it was Aman’s fault [Aman is Agaf ha-Modi’in, the intelligence branch of the military], for dropping Libya from the list of “objectives” for information-gathering because of tight budgets.  The result was that in recent years, very few Israeli intelligence operations were mounted inside or against Libya. 

The Mossad was embarrassed by the fact that the CIA and British MI6 – two of its closest counterparts – had been negotiating with Qaddafi for weeks to clinch the deal.  Those intelligence communities did not share the information with the Mossad.

What really grabbed the Israeli agencies in the Libya story was the revelation that Colonel Qaddafi’s nuclear program had been born out of the efforts and expertise of the Pakistani merchant of atomic knowhow, A.Q. Khan.  He had signed an agreement with Qaddafi to deliver a turn-key project.  Drawings, the centrifuges, scientists experienced at enriching uranium, and engineers who could assemble the bomb could all be provided by Khan.

Dagan and his chief intelligence officer wondered to themselves: Since they missed the whole Libyan deal, what else had they missed?  The research department was ordered in 2004 to go back into its archives and examine every piece of humint and sigint information it had accumulated, in the past decade, about Khan’s activities as a nuclear traveling salesman.  Intelligence agencies often gather more data than they can read and analyze, and individual intercepts and data points are not always immediately pieced together into a coherent mosaic.

The Mossad realized that – in addition to Libya– Khan had traveled to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria.  Further evaluation concluded that the Saudis and Egyptians, being in the American camp, would be less likely to have the gall to launch a nuclear program.

Syria could be a different case.  It was anti-America, making overtures toIran, and supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon more than ever.  The then-new Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, was inexperienced and might miscalculate in his ambitions to outdo his late father Hafez.

The more Mossad researchers dug, the more they found.  For the first time, Israeli analysts were seeing hints of nuclear work in Syria.  They noticed that the Assad regime, at the start of the 21st century, had clandestine contacts withNorth Korea that were difficult to explain.  The subject was, almost surely, not the already-known cooperation in the field of Scud missiles.  There was something else going on: secret, high-level, and troubling.

Dagan had his agency zoom in on Syria, by all measures available.  The Mossad first turned to the CIA and other friendly liaison links to ask whether they were aware of  Syria’s having nuclear contacts with North Korea.  Western intelligence agencies all knew about missile sales and cooperation between Damascus and Pyongyang.  Yet, neither the Americans nor the French (the latter having relatively good coverage of Syria due to their colonial past) knew a thing about nuclear links.

Israeli intelligence realized that it would have to rely upon itself.  That was a commonly held view in Israel on many topics, even when international cooperation seemed to be available.  “It’s part of their ethos,” commented Dennis Ross, a longtime Middle East advisor to American presidents, “not to contract out their security.” 

Within the Israeli intelligence community, through most of 2007, there was an urgent sense of being faced with a new mystery in Syria.  This was, therefore, no time to re-open old Mossad-Aman wounds about who missed Libya’s weapons program.  The divisions were healed. 

Military intelligence had Unit 8200 improve its eavesdropping on Syrian communications and signals.  Israeli satellites, first launched in 1988, were reoriented so that their orbits would put them over Syria more often.  The Mossad’s agent-running Tsomet department was instructed to do all it could to penetrate Syria’s leadership and to uncover the mysterious, unresolved contacts withNorth Korea.

This substantial extra work for Israeli intelligence required additional budgetary resources.  Dagan turned to Prime Minister Olmert to ask for more money and found, in Olmert, an ally.  “Whatever you need,” was the message, “you’ll get it.”

Israel’s air force now was able to do a lot more high-altitude reconnaissance flights.  Intelligence analysts were working much longer hours, poring over photos taken by Israeli satellites.

Some of the information was from sigint sources – intercepted communications.  But that was far from easy.  It seemed that only a very few Syrians knew what was going on.  Israeli intelligence tried to listen in on all their conversations, including those of President Assad and his close advisor and coordinator of covert projects, Brigadier General Muhammad Suleiman.

The combined espionage effort was narrowing onto several places and projects deemed highly suspicious.  The first breakthrough came in the form of a building, seen in reconnaissance photos: 130 feet by 130 feet, and about 70 feet tall, within a military complex in an obscure desert in northeastern Syria, not far from the Euphrates River. 

The Syrians tried to block aerial views of whatever was being built by putting a large roof over the scene.  That meant that something was being constructed, something worth concealing, but Israeli agencies could not tell what was inside.

The next, crucial step would involve risking the lives of Israelis: sending operatives into Syriato get close, to see what the Syrians were building.  For a variety of operational reasons, a decision was made to send combatants of the Mossad’s Kidon unit – who excelled at sensitive, dangerous surveillance and not only assassinations – in addition to an army special forces unit.

They sampled the soil, water, and vegetation around the site, but did not find any traces of radioactive materials.  Yet, other evidence they carried back to Israel did lead to the pieces of the puzzle falling into place. 

The mystery began to be solved.  It truly was a nuclear project.

September 11, 2012

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