IDF knew about Syrian nuclear reactor 5 years before destroying it

The IDF destroyed the Syrian nuclear reactor in Deir al-Zor in 2007 in Operation Outside the Box.

Before and after aerial picture of the Syrian nuclear reactor site (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
Before and after aerial picture of the Syrian nuclear reactor site
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)

IDF intelligence assessed that Syria was developing a nuclear reactor five years before it was destroyed by Israeli jets in Operation Outside the Box in 2007, the IDF Spokesperson Unit revealed on Tuesday.

Material released for the 15th anniversary of the operation showed that already in September 2002 Military Intelligence knew that Syria was beginning a classified nuclear project that Israel had not known of before.

In the intelligence report released by the IDF on Tuesday, Military Intelligence assessed that the information that they had did not point toward an active military project but that it was dealing with several issues that could contribute to the beginning of such a program.

That secretive Syrian project later turned out to be the nuclear reactor that Damascus was building in the deserts of Deir al-Zor.

The Mossad confirmed the existence of the Syrian reactor in March 2007, when the agency obtained photographs of the reactor that was being built in the northeastern Deir al-Zor province, close to the Euphrates River.

 The IDF Air Force team that destroyed the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT) The IDF Air Force team that destroyed the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

The pictures had been requested by the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, which had suspicions that Damascus was engaging in rogue nuclear activity.

How did intelligence recognize the reactor?

Military Intelligence had seen the structure being built during routine satellite scans of the country. Because it was built like a regular building, it was not immediately clear what the structure was. Then-head of Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin convinced Mossad chief Meir Dagan to send agents to obtain additional, conclusive intelligence.

In the months that followed, prime minister Ehud Olmert embarked on a diplomatic push to get Bush to attack the reactor. In July 2007, after Bush decided not to attack, Olmert convened his security cabinet, which ultimately concluded that the reactor had to be destroyed.

Meanwhile, Fox News requested information on the reactor from the Pentagon under the US Freedom of Information Act. Israel was informed of the request. Fearing a leak to the media would lead to the operation being compromised, the security cabinet deliberated on the strike one final time on September 5. According to The New Yorker magazine, all ministers voted to strike, with the exception of Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, who abstained.

Just before midnight on September 5, 2007, four F-15s and four F-16s took off for the al-Kibar facility. The planes entered Syrian airspace via Turkey, and sometime between 12:40 and 12:53 a.m., the pilots called out the operation’s codeword, “Arizona,” signaling that some 17 tons of bombs had been dropped on the facility and it had been destroyed.