Status of Syria strike hearing unclear

IDF fears full disclosure of attack details at congress session could spark response from Damascus.

US Congress 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
US Congress 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Despite an Israeli request, and amid heightened tensions with Syria, officials in Jerusalem said on Monday that it was still unclear whether US Congressional testimony on Israel's air strike against Syria last September would be held in public or behind closed doors. The hearing, scheduled for next week at the House Intelligence Committee, is listed on the public schedule. The attack took place on September 6 in northeastern Syria when, according to foreign reports, a number of Israeli Air Force fighter jets infiltrated northeastern Syria and bombed a nuclear facility that was being built there with North Korean assistance. Raising the issue at the hearing is seen in Israel as part of a congressional attempt to humiliate the Bush administration and prove that North Korea lied to the US when it claimed to have abandoned its nuclear activity. The assessment in Israel is that full disclosure of the attack in an open congressional hearing could "embarrass" Syrian President Bashar Assad and force him to respond, possibly with military force. Assad has denied the reports that Syria was building a nuclear facility. If the details of the attack are released in public, Israel fears that Assad will come under immense pressure in Damascus to take action. However, Israel's defense establishment believe that as long as the meeting is held behind closed doors, Assad could plausibly deny any leaks emanating from such a hearing. Either way, Israel does not plan on changing its policy of silence on the issue. Officials in Jerusalem said Monday that there was a disagreement in Israel between those - primarily from the defense establishment - concerned that public testimony would put Syria on the spot and perhaps cause Assad to feel the need to take some kind of retaliatory measure for the IAF attack, and those who believe it was in Israel's interest to highlight in the US North Korea's nuclear involvement with Syria. The officials said that those in the US interested in an open hearing want to show the public that while the US is engaged in nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea, the North Koreans are behind nuclear proliferation in the world's most sensitive spots. Relations with Syria reached a high point last week amid news reports that the Syrian military was conducting military maneuvers along its border with Lebanon. Israeli defense officials said that the moves were mainly defensive and were being taken out of fear that Israel would attack Syria if it were attacked by Hizbullah in response to the February assassination of arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh. A House Intelligence Committee aide said that no hearings on topics related to Israel, Syria or North Korea are listed on the public schedule. She noted that almost all intelligence committee hearings are held in closed sessions, so it would be highly unlikely that information about the Syrian incident would be revealed in a public forum. It is also possible that any administration briefing on the sensitive topic would be done selectively with intelligence committee members. Some members of Congress have been pushing for fuller disclosure of the events surrounding September 6 primarily because they are concerned about the reports alleging that North Korea has been supplying Syria with nuclear capabilities in contravention of its disarmament commitments made as part of the Six Party talks. These members of Congress are wary about the Six Party process continuing without having a clearer picture of North Korean activities in connection to Syria, among other issues. However, many of the members are sympathetic to Israel and understanding of the Israeli perspective that disclosing information could push Syria to retaliate, something its leader Bashar Assad has refrained from doing until now. There is also the hesitance of the Bush administration to be factored in. The administration has strategic concerns about revealing details of the Syrian incident, and it is also in the midst of a tug of war with Congress about disclosing sensitive information on intelligence and decision-making. It also doesn't want to give Congress reason to complicate the Six Party Talks, a delicate process that has suffered many hiccups along the way.