syria nuclear reactor site 311.
(photo credit: Courtesy ISIS)
If foreign news media reports are correct and it was Israel that
bombed a Syrian nuclear facility in September 2007, are there any lessons that
can be learned today vis-à-vis the Iranian threat? That question was raised by
David Makovsky in a report appearing in the latest edition of the New Yorker
that breaks new ground in describing the details of that strike.
Makovsky, former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, there are no easy
answers. Major differences in operational and geopolitical circumstances make
the situation in Syria in September 2007 and Iran in September 2012 difficult to
For instance, when contemplating an attack on Syria, Israel had
the benefit of deniability. The Syrian nuclear program was so clandestine that
even the chief-of-staff of the Syrian military knew nothing about it. The Mossad
had gotten its hands on documents held by a Syrian nuclear expert living in
Vienna that provided details about the Al-Kabir facility. And Israel
shared this top-secret information only with the US.
As a result, even if
an attack were carried out, President Bashar Assad could opt to pretend that
nothing had happened. Israel and the US could also remain mum on both the
nuclear facility and its destruction.
The situation in Iran is radically
different. The Islamic Republic’s nuclear program is well
publicized. Even the locations of its facilities – in Fordow, Natanz and
elsewhere – are known. Deniability is not an option. And with multiple
facilities, some of which built underground, the attack on Iran would be
significantly more complex.
But at least one lesson can be learned from
what has become known as Operation Orchard. According to Makovsky, Israel faced
strong US opposition. If an attack had to be launched, it was preferable that
the US, not Israel, carry it out, argued then-vice president Dick Cheney.
Condoleezza Rice, who was secretary of state at the time, convinced
then-president George W. Bush to pursue diplomacy.
under the leadership of prime minister Ehud Olmert, opted to launch an air
strike. In hindsight, Israel made the right decision. With a civil war
raging in Syria, the entire world should be relieved that Assad’s regime lacks
Operation Orchard follows a long tradition of Israeli
single-mindedness dating back to the Declaration of Independence. Though
president Harry S. Truman ultimately made the United States the first
nation to recognize Israel on May 14, it was unclear until the last minute how
the US would react to prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s decision to declare
independence. Truman’s final decision was preceded by a serious falling out with
American Zionists and it went against both the State Department and the
Department of Defense’s positions.
Then state secretary George Marshall
later recalled that on May 8, 1948, just days before Israel declared
independence, he told then-foreign secretary Moshe Shertok [Sharett] that if
Israel’s War of Independence went badly and Israel “came running to us for help
they should be placed clearly on notice that there was no warrant to expect help
from the US, which had warned them of the grave risk they were
In the run-up to the Six Day War, secretary of state Dean Rusk
warned foreign minister Abba Eban that “if Israel strikes first, it’ll have to
forget the US.” Similarly, relations between Israel and the Reagan
administration deteriorated seriously in the aftermath of prime minister
Menachem Begin’s decision to bomb the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq.
all of these cases, Israel pursued its best interests despite US opposition. And
in retrospect, Israel was right to do so.
The same sort of independence
of thought and action that directed Israeli policy in each of these fateful
turning points should be applied with the question of stopping Iran, a country
led by apocalyptic Shi’ite mullahs vowing to “wipe Israel off the
That should be the lesson that Syria, September 2007 teaches us
with regard to Iran, September 2012.