North Korea Built a Nuclear Reactor for Syria (And Israel Destroyed It)
Under no circumstances should an enemy state be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. That is a fundamental doctrine of Israel’s security policy shaped by Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the end of the 1970s.
To this day, Jerusalem has tried to act accordingly – mainly in regard to Iran. For many years, military analysts around the globe have speculated about an Israeli air strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities.
But would the Israeli air force be capable to execute such an operation? Well, so far, the IAF succeeded twice in striking decisive blows against enemies’ nuclear programs – in Iraq in 1981 … and in Syria in 2007.
At the end of 2006, Israel’s intelligence service detected a suspicious construction site in a remote region in northeastern Syria, close to the river Euphrates, 30 kilometers from Deir Az Zur. The construction area was covered with a huge roof that blocked the view from above.
Obviously, the Syrians tried very hard to hide something there. Israel’s intelligence agency suspected a secret nuclear program at the site.
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Soon, this suspicion was confirmed by an unexpected, high-ranking Iranian source. Gen. Ali Reza Askari had been security adviser of Iran’s former president Mohammad Khatami and vice minister of defense for several years. After the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, he fell from grace and, thus, defected to the United States in February 2007.
Askari provided highly valuable information. Among other things, he reported details about the Syrian nuclear program that had been financed by Iran and built by the North Koreans. They were constructing a graphite-moderated reactor named Al Kibar that was supposed to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
The United States shared these information with Israel.
In fact, Bashar Al Assad had established contact with North Korea as early as June 2000 regarding the construction of a reactor. The arms cooperation between Pyongyang and Damascus is traditionally close — the despotic communist regime had already helped Syria to develop chemical weapons in the past.
In 2002, the first North Korean components, technicians and scientists had arrived in Syria. The construction work, however, was concealed quite well — any communication to the outside was strictly prohibited.
Trying to confirm these worrying reports, Israel’s Mossad searched Ibrahim Othman’s hotel room in Vienna in March 2007. Othman was the director of Syria’s nuclear energy commission. Carelessly, he had left his laptop in his room, which was easy prey for Israel’s agents who copied his hard drive.
The data they obtained exceeded all expectations. Dozens of color photographs showed the interior of the building. There was no doubt anymore – the Syrians were building a nuclear reactor with the help of North Korea. One picture even showed Chon Chibu, a leading North Korean nuclear expert.
Mossad was convinced that the sole purpose of the Syrian nuclear program was the development of nuclear weapons. The photographs also showed that the reactor was only a few months away from operational readiness. Once it was operating, an air strike would prove difficult because of the nuclear fallout.
Israel had to move fast.
As soon as Jerusalem was fairly certain that Syria was on the verge of activating a nuclear reactor, Israel discussed the next steps with Washington. Israeli defense secretary Amir Peretz briefed his American counterpart Robert Gates on April 18 about the Mossad’s discovery.
Pres. George W. Bush, however, was careful. After the media disaster in Iraq and the alleged weapons of mass destruction that were nowhere to be found, the Bush administration wanted to avoid another mishap by any means.
However, the CIA checked the Israeli findings and agreed with Jerusalem’s interpretation. Nevertheless, some high-ranking officials in the Bush administration were skeptical, fearing another uncontrollable escalation in the Middle East. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had already been enough on the plate for the United States.
In June 2007, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert visited the White House. He frankly told the president that Israel might as well act unilaterally against the Syrian nuclear project, should the United States decline an operation. After Bush insinuated that he would not block an Israeli solo-action, the IDF started with the operational planning of a limited air strike against the Syrian facility.
An Israeli special forces commando from the IDF’s most elite unit, Sayeret Matkal, infiltrated Syria and collected intelligence at the nuclear construction site.
On Sept. 5, after weeks of clandestine political debates in Israel’s security cabinet, the IDF got the green light for Operation Orchard. In the same night, 10 F-15 and F-16 fighter jets took off at Israel’s Ramat David air base.