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What Did the Israelis Hit?

Dec 2, 2017
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An Israeli Air Force F-16I Sufa (Storm) Photo courtesy GlobalSecurity.org

Reports continue to circulate about the possible target of last week’s Israeli military strike in eastern Syria.

According to The New York Times, U.S. officials believe that weapons caches, earmarked for Hizballah, were the most likely target of the raid, which reportedly included both air and ground units. A Defense Department official told the Times that Israeli warplanes hit “at least one target” in northeastern Syria, but said it was unclear what was struck, and the extent of the bombing damage.

Based on our past experience in BDA (battle damage assessment), that claim is a bit difficult to believe. Given the variety of sensors available to the intelligence community, it seems doubtful that we’re largely in the dark about the target and the bombing results. The official’s comment to the Times suggests that he (or she) is out of the loop (i.e., doesn’t have access to current imagery products), or–more likely–is being deliberately vague about our knowledge of the attack.

But the real stunner in the Times report comes in the sixth paragraph, with this revelation from an unnamed member of the Bush Administration:

One Bush administration official said Israel had recently carried out reconnaissance flights over Syria, taking pictures of possible nuclear installations that Israeli officials believed might have been supplied with material from North Korea. The administration official said Israeli officials believed that North Korea might be unloading some of its nuclear material on Syria.

“The Israelis think North Korea is selling to Iran and Syria what little they have left,” the official said. He said it was unclear whether the Israeli strike had produced any evidence that might validate that belief.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a military action by another government.

The possible transfer of “nuclear material” from North Korea to other rogue states is something we’ve written about at length, including this most recent installment. Fact is, we don’t know the full extent of the “relationship” between Pyongyang, Tehran and Damascus. Clearly, North Korea has been the primary source of ballistic missile technology for both Iran and Syria; both countries have active WMD programs and an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. But clear evidence of a nuclear transfer has never been offered, at least publicly.

However, there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that Tehran and Damascus have a more-than-passing interest in Pyongyang’s nuclear expertise. Some intelligence analysts suggest that delegations from Iran and Syria were in the DPRK during last year’s marginally successful nuclear test. And there were also reports that a number of Syrian technicians died in a 2004 blast at a railroad crossing along the border between China and North Korea. That explosion has been described as both an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-il (who was returning from China along that route), or some sort of failed WMD experiment involving Syria and the DPRK.

In any event, the purported demise of at least 30 Syrian scientists and engineers (by one estimate) remains a bit curious, given the circumstances of their deaths. As you might expect, massive explosions are rare along major rail lines in the DPRK, particularly on a route used by the “Dear Leader” just a few hours earlier.

With North Korea “officially” abandoning its nuclear program (under the Six Party agreement with the U.S. and its partners), a transfer of material and technology to Syria and Iran certainly makes sense from Pyongyang”s perspective. By going along with the agreement, Pyongyang gets energy aid and other goodies from the U.S. and South Korea; the sale of nuclear materials to the Middle East would generate another economic windfall. It would also give the DPRK a mechanism for continuing their nuclear research efforts, while appearing to comply with the Six Party accord.

And, it would be relatively easy for Pyongyang to arrange such a transfer, but difficult for the U.S. to detect. North Korean vessels have delivered missile cargoes to the Middle East for years, and the same transports sighted at airfields near Pyongyang have turned up in Iran and Syria.

Such reporting does not provide conclusive proof that North Korea’s nuclear program has moved to the Middle East, but it is cause for concern. More importantly, the Israelis (who had their own nuclear arsenal for more than three decades) know what to look for in spotting suspect nuclear facilities. The sites imaged in Syria apparently have signatures associated with nuclear storage or development capabilities.

So far, both the Israelis (and the U.S.) are being vague about what’s been observed. If we had to speculate–and we must emphasize that it’s only speculation at this point–we’d guess that Israeli analysts have detected something that resembles a nuclear storage facility. We base our conclusion on this key point: it takes years to build a nuclear R&D facility like Natanz or Esfahan in Iran, and there have been no reports of similar construction projects in Syria. On the other hand, a nuclear storage complex can be built much more quickly, and those facilities (regardless of location) have certain features in common. What might be in that facility–assuming it exists and has a “nuclear function”–is anyone’s guess.

We must also emphasize that the reported nuclear facility was apparently not the target for last week’s IDF strike. Israel’s Ynet News, quoting a Israeli-Arab newspaper published in Nazareth, said that the raid targeted “a Syrian-Iranian missile base in northern Syria that was financed by Iran…it appears that the base was completely destroyed.” The paper based its reporting on anonymous Israeli sources.

But that claim is also rather odd. The area described by the newspaper (The Assennara) is home to a major Syrian SCUD facility, built almost entirely underground and extensively hardened. Complete destruction of the base would require exceptionally accurate bombing with penetrating weapons, and quite possibly, a follow-on ground assault. While the Israelis are capable of staging such an attack, the Syria base is heavily defended, and would present an exceptionally challenging target.

By comparison, other sources (including those U.S. officials quoted in the Times) place the target in northeastern Syria, not far from the Iraqi border. That would represent a logical area for training Hizballah crews on long-range rockets supplied by Iran. The area is remote, and the Syrians apparently thought it was relatively immune to Israeli attack (until last week). A less-hardened missile base or logistics facility would be easier to target and destroy, resulting in that “hole in the desert” claimed by IDF sources.

As for the reported “nuclear site,” its existence may be short-lived, particularly if Israel has evidence that some sort of transfer has occurred, or is about to take place. That might mean that last week’s attack was merely the opening blow, and not an isolated event.

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