It was late on a Wednesday night in Israel when the director of the Mossad placed an urgent telephone call to then–Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in early March 2007. The Assad regime, the Mossad chief reported, was building a nuclear reactor in the middle of the Syrian desert, and the evidence was incontrovertible.
What followed was a secret, late night Israeli air force operation deep inside Syrian territory that would destroy Bashar al-Assad’s covert effort to build a nuclear weapons program. The actual mission lasted for only a few minutes, but when it was over, Israel would eliminate what one cabinet officer at the time called “an existential threat” to the state. “It was a threat that we couldn’t live with.”
Eleven years later, the Israeli military is finally lifting the veil of censorship and permitting the politicians, ministers, military officers and air force pilots who participated in the operation with the opportunity to talk in public about this highly significant mission. Thanks to reporting from the Israeli media, we now have a more complete picture of what occurred in the lead up to Israel’s airstrike on the Syrian reactor.
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Libya's WMD Programs Spur a Rethink
In 2003, former Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi shocked the world by coming clean about his clandestine attempts to acquire a nuclear weapon. As the Bush administration celebrated Libya’s capitulation and cooperation with inspectors, the Israeli intelligence community trembled with alarm—not because Qaddafi was giving up his nuclear pursuits, but rather because Israel had no idea he was seeking to produce nuclear weapons in the first place. “If we had understood, I would have recommended that he [Qaddafi] be assassinated,” commented former Mossad director Shabtai Shavit.
After the Libyan intelligence failure, Israel’s spies and analysts went back over all of their files and took a more in-depth look into A. Q. Khan’s nuclear proliferation network. The review led to Syria, a country that was considered by Israel’s political leadership at the time to be less of a national security threat than Iran or Hezbollah.
Israeli Ministers Squabbled about What to Do
Once Prime Minister Olmert received the information about a nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert, there was only one option the security cabinet believed was viable: demolishing the facility from the air to buy time and send a warning to other would-be proliferators in the region that Israel will not allow any state to cross the nuclear threshold. The arguments in the security cabinet became testy and personal, however, over when the Israeli air force should launch the operation. Olmert wanted an immediate military response before the Syrians put the reactor on-line; Defense Minister Ehud Barak had a different view, arguing that Israel needed to take additional time to prepare the country in the event of a wider war. Olmert’s supporters suspected Barak was merely trying to string the proceedings along before a damning report on Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon would be released—a study widely expected to tarnish the prime minister’s political capital and possibly lead to his resignation.
Bush Wanted to Solve the Syria Issue Diplomatically
When Olmert approached the Bush White House for assistance—or better yet, for Washington taking ownership of the operation—he found an American president who felt burned by previous intelligence failures about WMDs. Bush was a far more dovish leader than his first term and didn’t believe the United States could afford another military adventure in the Arab world when 150,000 American troops were next door in Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney advocated for a U.S. military attack on the Syrian installation, but Bush sided with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s more diplomatic approach.
Bush would call the Israelis back with a plan: under the threat of an ultimatum, Washington would demand that Assad admit International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors into his country and agree to shut down the nuclear activity. Olmert rejected the strategy out of hand, concerned that Assad would use a diplomatic process to buy time until the reactor was complete.
When the Israelis notified the Bush administration of its attack plans, the White House didn’t stand in the way.
The Israelis Didn't Want to Embarrass Assad
As Israeli military planners were drafting strike options and gaming out scenarios, Olmert’s government needed to thread a needle. On the one hand, the building in the Syrian desert needed to be destroyed. On the other hand, the airstrike needed to be as quiet and discreet as possible so as not to humiliate Damascus internationally. Israeli intelligence officials assessed that Assad was highly unlikely to retaliate to an attack if Israel didn’t openly brag about the success of the operation or claim responsibility for it.
Instead of a massive bombardment, the air force used eight aircraft for the mission. When the operation was over, Israel kept the boasting to a minimum and the Assad regime was happy to spin the ordeal as a successful defense of the homeland for domestic propaganda.
Israel Will Act Alone in Necessary
Israel has illustrated throughout its history that it has no hesitancy in taking offensive measures to preserve its security and maintain its military superiority in the region. In 1982, despite loud opposition from the international community and rising anger from President Ronald Reagan, Israel bombed Beirut to flush out Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization. A year before, Israel bombed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear facility in the Iraqi desert; the fact that the world would likely condemn such a raid (which it did in a UN Security Council resolution with Washington’s support) was seen as minor in relation to the security gains that would result from a destroyed Iraqi WMD facility. And throughout the Syrian Civil War, Israel has conducted dozens of strikes on weapons convoys, Syrian army bases and an Iranian base to prevent advanced weapons from being transported to Hezbollah.
The 2007 operation against a nearly finished Syrian nuclear plant is one more case of Israel defending itself, by itself. When a danger is viewed as imminent or existential to the very presence of the state, Israeli prime ministers will authorize military force—even if the United States, its most important ally, decides to stay away from the action.
Daniel R. DePetris is a world affairs columnist for Reuters, a frequent contributor to the American Conservative and the National Interest, and a foreign-policy analyst based in New York, NY.
Image: Wikimedia Commons