Monday, October 15, 2007

What Happened in Syria on 6 September?

On 6 September, Israeli aircraft penetrated Syrian airspace. Apart from that, not much is known for sure about what happened. Syria claims its air defense systems fired on the planes, forcing them to jettison their external fuel tanks; Syria also claims that only a building "related to the military" but one that "was not used" was destroyed. Israel has been unusually tight-lipped about the operation.

Slowly, however, information is beginning to leak out. The New York Times reported yesterday, in apparent confirmation of numerous rumors that had been swirling around, that the target of the airstrike was a nascent nuclear reactor, most likely provided to Syria by North Korea. The Times is reporting that there had been debate within the Bush administration about how to respond to the reactor, but that "there wasn’t a lot of debate about the evidence."

Why would there by any debate? Because if it comes out, in the middle of talks surrounding North Korea's own nuclear program, that North Korea has providing a nuclear reactor to Syria, the case for negotiating with North Korea would be eviscerated. The talks would inevitably collapse, it would be nearly impossible to continue any diplomatic processes, and military strikes, an option which is about as bad as doing nothing, would be the only options left on the table.

Apparently, this is the source of the division with the Bush Administration. The hard-liners, led by VP Cheney and supported by those like former Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, supported the strike and argue that the evidence pointing to the reactor:

should lead the United States to reconsider delicate negotiations with North Korea over ending its nuclear program, as well as America’s diplomatic strategy toward Syria, which has been invited to join Middle East peace talks in Annapolis, Md., next month.

Mr. Cheney in particular, officials say, has also cited the indications that North Korea aided Syria to question the Bush administration’s agreement to supply the North with large amounts of fuel oil. During Mr. Bush’s first term, Mr. Cheney was among the advocates of a strategy to squeeze the North Korean government in hopes that it would collapse, and the administration cut off oil shipments set up under an agreement between North Korea and the Clinton administration, saying the North had cheated on that accord.

Meanwhile SecState Rice and SecDef Gates both opposed the strike, perhaps out of fear that it would cascade into a collapse of the agreement with North Korea.

It strikes me that both sides are wrong. Cheney and Bolton oppose the North Korea deal in and of itself and very well might like to use the strike as a pretense for scuttling the deal. So, Rice and Gates are right to worry about preserving the deal with North Korea: it's clearly the only option for dealing with North Korea's nuclear program at the moment. But ignoring the reactor entirely may have been even worse.

The balance of power in the Middle East is a precarious one. Israel has, by far, the dominant military power, and has a nuclear arsenal of its own. But Israel has also long adhered to a policy of strategic ambiguity by refusing to discuss or confirm its nuclear capability, largely so that its Arab neighbors would not feel compelled to proliferate themselves, an act that Egypt, Jordan, and until now, Syria, have demonstrated little interest in doing. But a Syrian nuclear program would pose a grave threat to regional stability. And even though the reactor may have been in the very early stages -- "it would have been years before the Syrians could have used the reactor to produce the spent nuclear fuel that could, through a series of additional steps, be reprocessed into bomb-grade plutonium" according to the Times -- allowing it to progress would have increased pressure on other Arab nations to proliferate, as well as undercut Israel's deterrent capability.

Perhaps the best gauge for the need for Israel's strike is the reaction from the other Middle East, Arab, and Islamic states. Or rather the lack of reaction. For there was none. The deafening silence that emanated from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and even Iran was extremely telling. Normally, an Israeli airstrike, and especially an unprovoked one, would be met by a chorus of condemnations and anti-Israel UN resolutions. But no one other than Syria and North Korea has said a word in protest of Israel's actions. No one wants to see a nuclear-armed Syria.

So, once again, Israel has performed a valuable role in ensuring non-proliferation in the Middle East. Now it's up to the diplomats to ensure that this doesn't undermine the progress in North Korea.

10 comments:

Matt Dupuis said...

I don't know that North Korean efforts to spread its nuclear technology would lead to an immediate collapse of the Feb 13th agreement, since it comes within the confines of the six-party talks and is hence padded with other members with appropriate stakes.

Even at that, assuming North Korea was responsible or that the Sanger article is indeed describing the target of the Israeli air raid, there is no evidence that this alleged collaboration on the reactor front began after Feb. 13. Moreover, wouldn't North Korean horizontal proliferation be all the better reason to can up its program rather than leave it to its own devices as it was from early 2003-early 2007?

There are also no indications (as of yet) that the Syrians are/were devloping reprocessing technology, without which this program would be going nowhere (militarily, at least).

Sanger typically has his ear to the ground in DC. But this article is one among many and the story is far from over. Hopefully in due time more will become available in the public domain.

In the meantime, someone really should begin looking at commercial satellite images to see what was destroyed and where.

Seth Weinberger said...

Matt:

It doesn't matter whether the collaboration began after the 2/13 agreement. If it becomes public knowledge that, despite being enmeshed in a negotiating process of several years, North Korea was helping Syria develop a nuclear program, all support and impetus for negotiations within the US disappears. Cheney and Bolton win. It was difficult enough for Bush to muster the diplomacy necessary to get this agreement; evidence of proliferation scuttles the whole deal.

Anonymous said...

First of all there is no agreement yet from six-party-talks with North Korea. As of today Kim Jong Il has shown his ability to play with international community and use it (abuse it) for his own interest.

Meanwhile, the latest development shows that North Korea, who's arms industry is among the only few remaining assets, has always had the ability to sell arms and try to proliferate its arm capabilities.

If there were North Koreans (on site) in Syria, they were not there for fun. Specially when one has to consider that North Koreans are not allowed to travel out of their home country without strick permission from their government, as well as they have to travel in group of 2 or more.

Therefore trying to "safeguard" the six-party-talks only to show that "diplomacy is working" while closing an eye on North's proliferation, is another huge mistake.


Israel did very well to hit that target, better now than later.

Matt Dupuis said...

It is unclear whether you personally think the deal should collapse or if you are merely saying the weight of the Bush administration will be leaning toward scuttling the deal. In the original post, you mentioned that "it's up to the diplomats to ensure that this doesn't undermine the progress in North Korea" and "it's clearly the only option for dealing with North Korea's nuclear program at the moment."

Either way, the approach taken by A/S Chris Hill is that all of this is reason to continue the six-party process to can up the NORKs program and ensure that Pyongyang is unable to spread its nuclear technology. That would imply, at the very least, that him and Sec. Rice still have the President's ear.

To the anonymous commenter, your statement that "there is no agreement yet from six-party-talks with North Korea," is thankfully wrong. In addition to the Feb 13 agreement from earlier this year, this month saw the agreement with North Korea to disable its three bomb-producing facilities by year's end. Whether they will live up to this no one knows; but far better to have something by which to cite their disarmament obligations than to abandon years of difficult negotations and diplomacy amidst what are, to date, rumors.

Seth Weinberger said...

Matt: I thought I was being clear, so I apologize if I wasn't. I do not think the talks should collapse. I don't see any good options other than negotiations. So, even in the face of a transgression like this, I would prefer to see the negotiated settlement persist and continue. If, however, it becomes publicly acknowledged that North Korea provided a reactor to Syria, I find it hard to believe that Bush will be able to maintain support for the negotiations.

Matt Dupuis said...

Ah ok. I was confused between what you said in your post and in your original response to my first comment.

I too am surprised that the Bush administration hasn't been more...vocal, about the events of that date, but I think they are being cautious after what happened with North Korea and the collapse of the Agreed Framework in 2002-2003. The results produced this year in the six-party talks are some of the only tangible and immediate achievements of the administation's foreign policy, so perhaps they are loathe to see that be tossed aside at this point.

On a completely unrelated note, I'm curious: what do you make of the situation with Turkey at the moment? Is a Turkish incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan likely and wise? What would be the US reaction/response?

Seth Weinberger said...

Matt: the Turkey question is a very interesting one. I do think Turkey is justified in crossing the Iraqi borders as Kurdish rebels are using the Kurdish areas of Iraq for sanctuary; just last week rebels crossed the border and attacked a Turkish post, killing 11 (I think) soldiers. Turkey certainly has the right to respond, and if Iraq can't control its borders, Turkey is justified in limited incursions to deal with the rebel threat.

However, the public attention Turkey is calling to the possible incursion -- the parliamentary vote and the public warnings -- is theater in response to the House vote on the Armenian genocide. In normal times, Turkey simply would have crossed the border and attacked the rebels without calling attention to its actions. Iraq would have lodged a pro forma protest, and not much else would happen. But the vote by the House Foreign Relations Committee puts the whole thing in a new light, making the situation much more dangerous. Ultimately, both sides will likely back down, as relations between Turkey and the US are too valuable. But things could be tense for the next few days.

politicsfan20080910 said...

Pretty disturbing story , very interesting read .

It is pretty incredible that something like this had happend , I wonder If the Isrealies shared their intelligence with the US and other allies before or after they had struck the targets .

Also it makes you wonder if North Korea had shared nuclear technology with Syria , DO you think they might have shared their information with Iran .

This makes the World War 3 comment from Bush days ago a little more chilly sounding .

World War 3 US and allies against Iran Nkorea and perhaps Russia . Yikes

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