OUTSIDE THE BOX: Israel's strike on Syria's nuclear plant

The compelling story behind Israel’s strike on Syria’s nuclear plant – and its ramifications.

By
April 6, 2018 10:16

Colonel A. on the 2007 IAF bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor site. (Marc Israel Sellem/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

Colonel A. on the 2007 IAF bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor site. (Marc Israel Sellem/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

 
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It wasn't a real bombshell when Israel formally claimed responsibility on March 21, 2018 for the September 2007 raid that destroyed the Syrian nuclear reactor. Nevertheless, it created shock waves that lasted for a week – almost an eternity in terms of the shelf life of Israeli news stories. On that date, the Israeli military censor allowed the Israeli media and Israeli-based foreign journalists to publish stories about how the Israel Air Force (IAF) carried out the operation whose code names included "Outside the Box," “Operation Orchard” and “Arizona.”

For over a decade, Israel has maintained its silence by neither denying nor confirming worldwide reports about it. It was one of the best-known secrets. Almost everyone assumed and guessed that Israel was behind the raid, but Israeli media were forbidden from citing Israeli sources and had to settle only for quoting "foreign sources." It didn't matter that most of the "foreign reports" had gotten their information from Israeli leaders and military and intelligence chiefs.

Once the floodgates were open, the Israeli public witnessed – and many were even disgusted by – how former prime ministers and defense ministers as well as intelligence and military chiefs rushed to claim their 15 minutes of fame, not hesitating to accuse each other of negligence, failures and of stealing the credit. It was an ugly mud fight that overshadowed the event that had given Israel one of its greatest strategic achievements by preventing another Arab country (the first one was Iraq, whose nuclear reactor was destroyed by the IAF in June 1981) from having the bomb.

One important question emerged: Why was Israel confirming the raid now? Posing the question led to some conspiracy theories. The most common one is that the military censor’s office, led by Brig.-Gen. Ariella Ben Avraham, wanted to help Ehud Olmert, who was prime minister at the time of the strike, to promote his new book, whose publication coincided with the official confirmation.

But the truth is different. The government was forced by the Supreme Court, which heard appeals by Israeli journalists demanding permission to publish the story based on "Israeli sources.” Fearing that lifting the veil of secrecy would irritate Syria and might cause it to retaliate, the censor hesitated for many months, and time and again postponed the publication date, but eventually the censor’s office realized that it had to obey the court ruling.

The reactor, built secretly with the help of North Korea, was located just outside Deir al-Zor, the largest city in eastern Syria, which was captured in 2014 by Islamic State (ISIS) forces and held for more than three years.

The facility was almost identical to the Yongbyon nuclear complex in North Korea that produced plutonium for nuclear bombs, according to Israeli intelligence officials, and it was only weeks away from beginning to produce highly radioactive materials.

Just imagine if ISIS had gotten its hands on plutonium and other elements to build nuclear bombs. Israel’s action – a difficult decision by then-prime minister Olmert after he unsuccessfully asked US president George W. Bush to bomb the building – prevented the world’s most bloodthirsty terrorists from acquiring the world’s deadliest weapons.

Eight F-15s and F-16s took off from the Hatzerim and Ramon air bases in the south of the country an hour or so before midnight on September 5 and flew silently toward their target. Protected by sophisticated electronic jamming systems that blinded Syria’s air defenses, the Israeli planes had no trouble dropping 17 tons of explosives on the target, which was camouflaged as an agricultural farm, and were able to confirm visually that, in three potent minutes, it had been flattened. The danger that an Arab enemy bordering Israel would attain the doomsday weapon was removed.

Returning from their mission, the pilots reported “Arizona” – the code name that meant the operation had been accomplished. When they landed safely back home at 2 a.m. on September 6, the pilots did not celebrate.

“There were no ceremonies and no fanfare,” Maj. (now Col.) T., one of the pilots of the “Hammers” squadron, told me. “Of course, we understood the historic significance of our accomplishment, but we had to restrain ourselves,” he emphasized. “Secrecy and compartmentalization were of the utmost importance.” What had taken place that night was to remain on a strict need-to-know basis.

After the attack, Syrian President Bashar Assad flatly denied that his country had built a nuclear reactor in violation of international commitments to the non-proliferation treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). His denials were cushioned by a wise Israeli decision to use “the opaque policy” of not commenting on the strike.

The censor’s decision to release the story led to a fierce battle of egos between Israel's two largest intelligence agencies. “The exposure of the reactor is one of the great achievements of Aman [Military Intelligence] in particular and of Israeli intelligence in general,” said Brig.-Gen. Shalom Dror, who in 2007 was a major in charge of Aman’s research on Syria.

Yet Tamir Pardo, the deputy director of the Mossad at the time – and the agency’s chief from 2011 through 2015 – disagreed.
“For years, Syria built a nuclear reactor under our noses. We did not know about it for years,” he said. “It was not built on the dark side of the moon, but in a neighboring country where we always thought we knew almost everything.”

Pardo compared the intelligence flop, namely Aman's, to its blindness to anticipate the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Israel’s highest-ranking general at the time, Chief of Staff Lt-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, backed Pardo's argument. He recalled receiving reports on many Arab nations from Aman and the Mossad, but none linked the words “Syria” and “nuclear” in any serious way.  

“Sure, suspicions arose, but there was no proof,” Ashkenazi told me. “In intelligence work, there were a lot of suspicions. Syrian nuclear was not a subject considered to be important.” 


The fact that there was any attention paid to this at all was the result of trauma suffered by Israel’s intelligence apparatus near the end of 2003. The late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had publicly admitted that he had a nuclear weapons program, and Western governments quickly discovered that the know-how and materials had been sold to the Libyans by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the "father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb,” who later became a freelancer and made a fortune as a nuclear trafficker.

Israel intelligence, however, had not completely ignored Khan: they had strong evidence that he helped Iran launch its unacknowledged military nuclear ambitions. But they did not realize how his sales efforts had succeeded elsewhere.

Shabtai Shavit, who was the director of the Mossad in the 1990s, told me a few years ago that Israeli intelligence knew about Khan’s travels to hawk his wares in the Middle East, but did not understand how the Pakistani engineer could provide a quick and relatively easy kit for starting the route toward a nuclear arsenal. “If we had understood, I would have recommended that he be assassinated and that would have been one of the few times that eliminating a person could have changed history,” he said.

After the revelation that Gaddafi’s Libya was dangerously advanced in its nuclear work, Israel’s military intelligence chiefs ordered that every scrap of evidence collected – but filed away without much analysis – be looked at again.

Aman found reports of Khan’s visits Syria. The agency doubled its focus on Syria, where Assad had come to power in 2000 by default when his father died after his elder brother, groomed for leadership, perished in a car crash.

Sometime in late 2004, "We realized that something was happening in Syria in regard to a nuclear program," I was told by both Amnon Sofrin, head of the intelligence department of the Mossad and Eli Ben Meir, a brigadier general in Aman who then was a junior research analyst. With that realization, Meir Dagan, who was the Mossad’s director from 2002 to 2011 and died two years ago, joined Ashkenazi in asking prime minister Ariel Sharon for an extra budget specifically to look for a nuclear project in Syria. Aman’s renowned Unit 8200 greatly increased its monitoring of all Syrian communications.

Ibrahim Othman, director of Syria’s Atomic Energy Commission, was considered to be the man who must know the secrets.

As already reported outside Israel in The New Yorker magazine, the Mossad's operatives broke into Othman’s hotel room in Vienna, where he had been staying for an IAEA meeting. There, they found a goldmine: he had left his computer in the room containing data that, when deciphered by Israeli intelligence laboratories, included 35 photos of Othman in the company of North Korean scientists and of the interior of the facility outside Deir al-Zor, clearly showing that it was a nuclear reactor to produce plutonium.

The photographs were the smoking gun to corroborate Israel’s suspicions. The information was rushed to Olmert, who then approached Bush, asking if the US would do something. Bush declined, explaining that US forces were bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he did not want to open a third front – but he said nothing about an Israeli raid. For Olmert, it was enough: he interpreted this, rightly so, as a green light and instructed Ashkenazi to prepare an air strike.

But to his surprise, Olmert met unexpected opposition. It was Ehud Barak, the newly appointed leader of the Labor Party who had succeeded Amir Peretz as defense minister. "First, he asked me to study the plan, which seemed to me natural," Olmert told me. "But then he came with more and more explanations why the raid has to be postponed. I thought they were just excuses to justify his delaying tactics.

Eventually, Olmert, who can't be described as a naïve politician, reached the conclusion that Barak hoped to succeed him, after being fully accredited for the brazen operation. But time was running out. 

Barak denied the accusations and claimed in an interview with me that his motives were pure and professional out of concern for Israeli security. He admitted, however, that "Olmert deserves the credit for his bold decision."

"We couldn't wait," added Olmert. Ashkenazi explained that there were a few factors that determined the decision when to attack. First, the question was when radioactive materials would be introduced and the reactor would become "hot." The intelligence answer was “soon" – in a matter of weeks or a few months. Second, Israel was worried that the existence of the reactor would be revealed, helping Assad to realize that his secret was exposed, which would lead him to defend the site, and making a surprise raid a more difficult mission.

All in all, the final conclusion was reached in August that there was a window of opportunity until November. In early September, Israel realized that the secret of the Syrian nuclear reactor was out. A foreign intelligence service learned about the plan, and an American journalist, during a reception at the Israeli Embassy, also made some inquiries. In retrospect, it was rumored in Israeli intelligence circles that it was the cunning Dagan who made sure that the journalist would be tipped off in order to push the inept Israeli cabinet to take action. Indeed, 24 hours after the journalist's query, the cabinet was convened and ordered the IAF to go into action.

The lesson is clear and was known even before the operation: Israel can't afford to have any of its enemies equipped with nuclear weapons. There are also lessons to the US. The CIA failed to track North Korea's deep involvement in building Syria's nukes. So even if US President Donald Trump is able to reach an agreement with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, with Pyongyang promising to freeze or even dismantle its nuclear program, there will always be uncertainty about possible cheating.

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