Sept. 6, 2017, marks the 10th anniversary of a historically significant airstrike that destroyed a nuclear reactor that was under construction in Syria. Israel has never publicly confirmed that its air force carried out the strike, but the time has come for Israel to claim credit for keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of both ISIS and Syria’s dictator.
Then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s reason to keep the attack an unacknowledged mystery was to lessen the chance of retaliation by Syria. If Israel didn’t boast about bombing Syria, perhaps the dictator, Bashar al-Assad, would not feel compelled to strike back.
The story got out mostly because of reports that a fuel canister, apparently dropped by an Israeli military jet, was found in Turkey. Then Syria made the accusation that Israeli planes had entered its airspace — adding later the claim that meaningless empty buildings had been attacked. Syria didn’t even try to retaliate. Israel’s military was and is more powerful.
Over the months and years that followed, details of what the Israelis had destroyed did emerge. The CIA submitted a report to Congress, and it was released to the public — including photographs of the smashed building and evidence that it was a nuclear reactor that copied a North Korean design.
Some of the photos had been obtained by Israel’s espionage agency, the Mossad, by breaking into a Syrian nuclear official’s laptop computer during his working visit to Vienna, Austria.
Israeli and American intelligence agencies agreed that Syria’s aim was to produce plutonium, so it could be used to manufacture nuclear bombs.
Before long it was learned that North Korean experts had been on the scene, helping in the planning and construction of the reactor — a project that was never completed, thanks to Israel’s pilots.
All of this leads to a startling realization: What if Israel’s leaders in 2007 hadn’t ordered the airstrike? In early 2011, an “Arab Spring” protest movement in Damascus erupted into a no-holds-barred civil war. What might the Assad regime have done with a nuclear bomb? It did use chemical weapons against its people.
Here is an even more alarming question: What if the facility, perhaps storing a nuclear arsenal, had fallen into the hands of the bloodthirsty terrorists of ISIS? The secret compound was on the Euphrates River, about halfway between Raqqa and Deir es-Zur, the two key cities held by ISIS since early in the civil war. The self-declared Islamic State almost surely would have captured nuclear weapons.
Israel eliminated that threat. It also destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in Baghdad in June 1981 — at the time, the longest-range bombing raid ever by Israel’s air force. That helped prevent Iraq from becoming a nuclear power.
Two footnotes: Iraq’s retaliation against Israel didn’t become visible until 1991. During the first Gulf War, after the United States invaded Iraq to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, he launched Scud missiles at Israel. His more complex goal was to draw the Israelis into that war, because then-President George H.W. Bush’s Arab allies might quit the U.S.-led coalition. The invisible Iraqi retaliation was Saddam’s continuing support for anti-Israel terrorist groups.
The other footnote touches on whether there is an Israeli-style military solution to the crisis with North Korea. Could the United States count on destroying every vestige of that Communist country’s nuclear and missile programs? It is not just one target, in the form of a building in the desert. Yet the most important reason the answer is “no” is that North Korea seems almost sure to retaliate: and the destruction that could be inflicted on South Korea, an American ally and an industrial giant, would be sickening.
Dan Raviv, Washington correspondent of i24News, and Yossi Melman of the Israeli newspaper Maariv, are co-authors of “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.”