Israel’s September 2007 attack on a Syrian nuclear facility began with a daring Mossad raid on the Vienna home of a Syrian nuclear expert seven months earlier, a New Yorker article stated Monday.
The report, by David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, provided details of the raid on the Al-Kabir facility that concluded successfully when, he asserted, eight Israeli planes dropped 17 tons of bombs on the facility, killing between 10 and three dozen workers. It also claims that Israel’s theft of photographs from the expert’s home in early 2007 provided concrete evidence that Damascus was building a plutonium nuclear reactor.
Neither Israel nor Syria has admitted to this day that the raid ever took place: Syria, because of embarrassment, and Israel because it did not want to push President Bashar Assad into a corner where he would feel a need to retaliate in order to save face.
The report repeated what former US president George W. Bush and vice president Dick Cheney wrote in their memoirs, that the US was opposed to the raid and preferred instead a non-military solution.
Elliott Abrams, then the deputy national security adviser in the White House and an official cited in the piece, told The Jerusalem Post in June that then-prime minister Ehud Olmert made the decision to attack over US opposition.
Abrams said at the time that Bush’s aides conveyed all options on how to stop the building of the Syrian facility to Bush – “covert options, military options, diplomatic options” – and that Bush “chose the wrong option.”
Abrams said that he himself favored an Israeli military strike, Cheney favored an American one, but then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice pushed a diplomatic option: Making the existence of the facility public and going to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN, and building an international consensus to get the Syrians to close it.
Rice, according to Makovsky in The New Yorker, lost confidence in the IDF’s abilities after its failure to provide Hezbollah with a knock-out punch in the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
Makovsky quoted a former administration official as saying, “Condi [Rice] thought that the Israeli military was unreliable and that they were no longer the 10-foot giants that we had grown up with.”
One little known detail of the raid that appeared in the New Yorker article was that time was a deciding factor because of the concern that if the facility went “hot,” radiation from the destroyed reactor could contaminate the nearby Euphrates River.
Another interesting revelation was the reported opposition of Ehud Barak, and how politics played into the decision-making process.
According to Makovsky, Barak – who then, like now, was the defense minister – told his fellow ministers in the security cabinet that he preferred waiting on the operation, to give the northern command time to “prepare for possible Syrian retaliation.”
Makovsky, who interviewed Olmert for the piece, said Olmert “suspected that Barak had another reason for putting off an attack on Al-Kibar. The final report of the Winograd Commission, a governmentappointed inquiry into the decisions involved in the 2006 war with Hezbollah, was anticipated around the end of the year and was expected to criticize Olmert for his handling of the war and weaken him politically.
“Olmert worried that Barak would seize upon the report’s findings, trigger Olmert’s ouster as prime minister, and lead the operation against the Syrian reactor himself.”
Makovsky wrote that as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu considers how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat today, Israel’s response to the Syrian facility “has emerged as both an exemplary and a cautionary tale.”
“Although the US and Israel agreed on the fundamental facts and risks, they had reached opposing policy conclusions,” he wrote.
“The situation in Iran differs fundamentally from the Syrian case,” he concluded. “The Syrian affair was known to only a small number of officials in Damascus, Israel and Washington, whereas the prospect of striking Iran’s nuclear program has been vigorously discussed in public.
“Experts have pointed to the risk of civilian casualties and prolonged retaliation. What’s more, a key Iranian site lies deep underground outside the holy city of Qom, and it is strongly fortified; an attack on it would run a higher risk of failure.”