Former defense minister on Syria reactor strike: ‘We had the intel, but...’

Israel’s military censor has finally allowed officials to share the story behind the operation to destroy Syria's nuclear reactor with the world.

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March 21, 2018 07:10
4 minute read.
Former Defense Minister Amir Peretz and the Syrian reactor destroyed in 2007

Former Defense Minister Amir Peretz and the Syrian reactor destroyed in 2007. (photo credit: REUTERS + AFP)

 
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Toward the end of March 2007, Meir Dagan, then-head of the Mossad, gave defense minister Amir Peretz the intelligence that would lead to Operation Orchard, in which Israel destroyed Syria’s nuclear reactor under construction.

Ten years after Dagan shared pictures and other classified documents regarding a facility in Syria’s Deir al-Zour region with Peretz, Israel’s Military Censor has finally allowed officials to share the story behind the operation with the world.

“The pictures, which the Mossad had gathered since the beginning of March, were taken inside the facility and showed North Korean workers,” Peretz told The Jerusalem Post during an interview in his Knesset office. It was unclear what exactly was happening there,” Peretz continued. “The building had an everyday look to it, with no major defensive weapons.”

According to a 2012 report in The New Yorker, Mossad experts studied the three dozen color photos taken inside the al-Kibar facility near the borders of Turkey and Iraq as well as aerial photos of the site on the Euphrates River. They concluded that the only possible purpose of such a facility, similar only to North Korea’s nuclear installation in Yongbyon, would be the assembly of a nuclear bomb.

Israeli officials were told that Muhammad Suleiman, a senior Syrian officer in charge of President Bashar Assad’s “shadow army,” which dealt with things such as transferring Iranian weapons and military know-how to the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist group Hezbollah, knew of the reactor’s existence.

Peretz agreed, telling the Post, “We had the intelligence but then came the dilemmas.”

The damning pictures were extremely concerning to the Israelis, who some 20 years earlier had destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor as part of the preventive strike “Begin doctrine,” which remains a central feature of the Jewish state’s security planning.

According to Peretz, “The timing of when to strike had to be based on many things, including if the reactor was ‘hot,’ it would risk having major health repercussions for citizens along the Euphrates for at least the next 100 years.”

Another factor which had to be considered was a possible leak by the media, which would lead the international community to oppose an Israeli strike.

Dagan had also shared the pictures with then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, who pledged to destroy the facility as soon as possible.

In April, Peretz convened his first meeting with top Israeli officials, including his deputy Efraim Sneh, IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, head of IDF Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, air force chief Maj.- Gen. Eliezer Shkedi and Dagan.

Everyone at the April meeting had signed secrecy agreements and met almost weekly until early September.
Colonel A. on the 2007 IAF bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor site. (Marc Israel Sellem/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

“At that first meeting, I made the decision to prepare all options,” Peretz said, but then came the political dilemmas, “When and how do we tell our allies?”


THE TIME came on April 18, when US defense secretary Robert Gates came to Israel on a routine working trip. Dagan, along with the prime minister’s chief of staff Yoram Turbowicz and the prime minister’s diplomatic adviser Shalom Turgemen, had been dispatched to Washington to inform other senior US officials.

“I went to Gates’s hotel room with Yadlin and Eitan Dangot [then-military secretary to the defense minister] and shared all the intelligence with him. There’s no way that he was in Israel and later finds out I didn’t tell him about this.”

By June, Peretz lost the Labor Party leadership and his position as defense minister to Ehud Barak. According to Peretz, he told Barak on June 14 that he was unwilling to stay on without a cabinet portfolio.

That afternoon, Peretz received a report from Shkedi that said the al-Kibar facility in Syria was about to turn “hot,” and the air force chief recommended carrying out the operation “as soon as possible.”

The next day, Peretz and his team met with at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem where Peretz told Olmert that he quit.

At a security cabinet meeting, Olmert, Barak and foreign minister Tzipi Livni were given the go-ahead to decide the final nature of the attack and withdrew to meet with Ashkenazi, who recommended striking that night.

“The Begin doctrine was right from the beginning and remains so today,” Peretz said. “If the operation hadn’t had happened, Syria would have nuclear weapons, Daesh [ISIS] would have them too, and that would be a catastrophe.”

Ten years after Operation Orchard, Syria has still not tried to restart its nuclear program.

But while Suleiman was killed by snipers on August 1, 2008, a report to the United Nations Security Council in early August said that in the past six months, two shipments from North Korea destined for the Syrian government agency responsible for chemical weapons have been intercepted.

While the report did not specify what the shipments contained, the recipient of the shipments, the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, has been linked to the Assad regime’s development of chemical weapons as well as nuclear research, ballistic missiles and air defense.

In September, foreign reports linked Israel to a strike on the Al-Tala’i Research Center east of Masyaf in Hama that belongs to the agency.

Yadlin said the strike was not routine and that it sent a message to world powers that Israel would “enforce its redlines to protect its citizens despite the fact that the great powers are ignoring them.”

Today, according to Peretz, Iran is “without a doubt” the biggest challenge facing Israel and the world. While the former defense minister was doubtful that Hezbollah will ever get its hands on nuclear weapons, he said if Iran acquires one, it could lead to a new arms race in the Middle East for which Israel might eventually end up having to pay.

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