Jeffrey LewisDid Israel Strike a Syrian Nuclear Facility?


Okay, I don’t even know where to start on this bullshit “Israeli airstrike on the clandestine Syrian nuclear program.” I don’t know what the Israelis hit, but I don’t see any reason to believe it was a nuclear weapons facility.

Over the next few days, while enjoying the beauty of Sichuan, I will try to sift through all this crap.

Today, I start with a more modest goal: a timeline outlining how two separate stories about a Syrian airstrike and Syria-DPRK nuclear cooperation merged into the big mess we have today.

  • This whole shebang began when Syria’s official media accused Israel of violating its airspace and dropping munitions. AP’s Albert Aji summed up the story aptly on September 7 observing: “It was unclear what happened. Syria stopped short of accusing Israel of purposely bombing its territory, and an Israeli spokesman said he could not comment on military operations.”
  • Things got a little weird on September 11 when KCNA — the North Korean press agency — called the intrusion “a very dangerous provocation little short of wantonly violating the sovereignty of Syria and seriously harassing the regional peace and security.” Ha’aretz noticed the announcement.
  • On September 12 Mark Mazetti and Helene Cooper convince a Defense Department official to confirm that Israel conducted a strike. Although the story stated that “Officials in Washington said that the most likely targets of the raid were weapons caches that Israel’s government believes Iran has been sending the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah,” Mazetti and Cooper flashed a little leg, adding “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.” Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper, “U.S. Confirms Israeli Strikes Hit Syrian Target Last Week,” September 12, 2007. Reuters, by the way, also got US officials to confirm the strike, stating that reports about the target are “confused.”
  • That official must also have called Glenn Kessler, who on September 13 begins the Syria-North Korea line in earnest with N. Korea, Syria May Be at Work on Nuclear Facility, claiming North Korea is assisting Syria with “some sort of nuclear facility” based on Israeli information “restricted to a few senior officials under … Hadley” and not disseminated to the intelligence community for scrutiny. This story, though carefully qualified, is insanely vague, even by the low standards of what passes for reporting on nonproliferation. The impact is to cause other news competitors to try to fill in the details.
  • Poor Andy Semmel further feeds the Syria-North Korea stories on September 14, making a few relatively bland (if impolitic) remarks that APs Nicole Winfield blows out of proportion. Then the Mazzetti and Cooper go nuts, writing U.S. Official Says Syria May Have Nuclear Ties. We’ll talk about this later, but Semmel’s remarks are much more circumspect than the headlines would suggest.
  • Then, Kessler merges the two stories on September 15 when he cites — I am not making this up — “a prominent U.S. expert on the Middle East” — not a government official — “who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid compromising his sources” — claiming that some Israelis told him (or her) “the target of the attack appears to have been a northern Syrian facility … that Syria was using it to extract uranium from phosphates.” We’ll talk about this later, too, but that statement about phosphates is technical nonsense — such a facility would have little relevance to a weapons program. The explanation for the leak about DPRK-Syrian nuclear cooperation is evident from the title of the story, “Syria-N. Korea Reports Won’t Stop Talks” — as in Six Party Talks.

At this point, of course, all hell has broken loose.

  • Peter Beaumont in The Guardian on September 16 claims
    the Israel code named the mission Operation Orchard and competently, if perhaps to credulously, summarizes existing reporting.
  • The Sunday Times, of course, covers the story
    as “Israelis ‘blew apart Syrian nuclear cache’ Secret raid on Korean shipment,” stating that Syria was seeking “a nuclear device from North Korea.”

And these are just the stories I have the stomach to read.

Update: Joe Cirincione who nails this story on the head:

This story is nonsense. The Washington Post story should have been headlined “White House Officials Try to Push North Korea-Syria Connection.” This is a political story, not a threat story. The mainstream media seems to have learned nothing from the run-up to war in Iraq. It is a sad commentary on how selective leaks from administration officials who have repeatedly misled the press are still treated as if they were absolute truth. Once again, this appears to be the work of a small group of officials leaking cherry-picked, unvetted “intelligence” to key reporters in order to promote a preexisting political agenda.

You tell ‘em, buddy.

You can Joe’s entire statement, as well as Glenn Kessler’s response, over at Foreign Policy.


  1. james

    thanks jeffrey.

    i thought i’d overslept a few months judging by the hysteria.

    perhaps the panic is to draw attention away from greenspan’s oil/iraq statement?

  2. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Wow… so it is that bad? They spun a story and got it in the Times of London!

    Well, I should be the last person to be surprised, having seen the Guardian taken by a false story, first hand.

    Assuming that there is no truth to the DPRK-Syria story, it is looking like as bad as the allegations of DPRK counterfeiting US $100 ‘supernotes’ repeated uncritically in the Journal International Security.

    See Sheena Chestnut: “Illicit Activity and Proliferation: North Korean Smuggling Networks”, International Security, Summer 2007

    That story got discredited but still floats around.

  3. Ohadi Langis (History)

    While I don’t believe for a minute that the WPost is a shill for right wing nut cases in or out of the government, it is curious how much detailed information shows up in the news media from places where it normally is not to be found.

    There is too much disinformation despite reports of Israeli censorship of its own news media.

  4. SQ

    As foolish and regrettable as all this is, Joe Cirincione is fighting the last war.

    This affair does not resemble pre-war reporting on Iraq, which had all kinds of ominous specificity and a very clear purpose, i.e., to drum up support for war. This time, no specifics, and no clear purpose. (It might be someone’s wish to perturb negotiations with North Korea. Or it might be someone wish’s to explain why North Korea doesn’t have everything it was once imagined to. Or both. Or neither. Hard to say.)

    Nor does it resemble reporting on alleged Iraqi WMD going to Syria, which aimed at rescuing wavering beliefs about the existence of Iraqi WMD. No such angle this time.

    Nor does not resemble threat-magnifying reporting on North Korean nuclear affairs of the past, which featured tight coordination of anonymous claim and confirmation, and often tight timing (on the heels of inconclusive Six-Party Talks sessions), the point being to cast North Korean intentions in the very worst light possible, and bring a stop to further talks. No confirmation, nothing well-timed. It seems to have been driven by media inquiries rather than planted, as in the past.

    To all appearances, this is merely bad newspapering. Both the New York Times and Washington Post have run vague yet dramatic-sounding claims by anonymous, single sources, relating second- or third-hand views about what is considered possible, not even what is believed. This simply doesn’t cut it, folks.

  5. spacemanafrica

    Whatever it was came from North Korea into Tartus and then to Deir al-Zur where three days later the Israelis made an attempt on it. If they diverted a satellite, as is claimed, it would point to a serious minded attempt at something. This wasn’t the standard sort of incursion or at least it isn’t playing out like one. The Israeli planes, by Syria’s admission, were operating from Turkish airspace and did penetrate a good 70 miles give or take 20 into Syrian airspace to harass what has only been described as an “agricultural research facility,” which is likely a part of the Al-Furat University.

  6. J (History)

    What the hell is Semmel talking about when he asserts, “There are North Korean people there. There’s no question about that. Just as there are a lot of North Koreans in Iraq and Iran.”

    Umm, are there North Koreans in Iraq today? Yeah, sure, the al-Maliki government is at risk of a meltdown, but they have the time to host some North Korean scientists to discuss an illicit nuclear program?

    As best I recall, all the inflated evidence peddled in 2002 never mentioned North Koreans in Iraq, so again what is he talking about?

  7. British reader

    Fair point about the new tone in the media at the moment, quite some movement towards endgame type material with respect to Iran rather than threat analysis if you ask me.

    But what does Arms Control Wonk think about Israel making such a substantial traverse of Syria’s missile umbrella though? What would precipitate that? Information flows both ways with an overflight like that (and there’s nothing to say anything other than fuel tanks were dropped). Syria’s radar take will be something for them and their embedded Russian crews to work with so something was worth the candle. Any input on that?

  8. davesgonechina (History)

    Hey Jeffrey, you might want to pass a note on to your colleague David Axe in the Danger Room. He is calling it “alleged”, but I’d like to see you guys crank something out after comparing notes, cuz two heads are better than one, right?

    Mianyang?! Not swinging by Xiamen this time? I still owe you a beer.

  9. davesgonechina (History)

    Oh, and the fantastic China Matters blog, which was all over the North Korea banking story, shares your doubts:

  10. Haninah (History)

    I still wonder if the original theory I came up with on the first day Syria complained about the incursion, before the whole North Korean angle was drummed up, might not have been right…
    Could it be that all that happened was that some Israeli F-15s were running a reconnaissance/intimidation/training mission over potential Syrian targets, were spotted and fired on, released some chaff, and flew home? The chaff would be the “munitions” that were “released” over Syria, in the words of the initial Syrian release – that would explain the vagueness of the original statement, which claimed no Syrian targets were attacked.
    From there on, the story just evolves by each actor following his own interests. Israel refuses to comment, because no country likes to discuss its anti-SAM countermeasures, and because Israel likes to play the Bill Belichick of international affairs (“no comment”), and because vague rumors of a successful strike against some ominous Syrian facility only help Israel’s street cred. Syria refuses to make a big fuss because it’s embarrassed that it failed to thwart the penetration, and because it doesn’t actually have any bombed-out facilities to fuss about – because there were never any bombs dropped. The Bolton-Cheney faction of the US government starts spinning this into a tale of Syrian-Korean nuclear collaboration because, well, that’s what they do. And North Korea opens its big yap to issue a strange press release because – well, acting strangely and undermining its own credibility on the world stage is what North Korea does.
    Am I missing something here?

  11. Ohadi Langis (History)

    Anyone want to hazard a guess as to why the six-party talks were put on hold today? It sounds like a non-denial denial or maybe everyone just needs some time to take a deep breath and make sure the Syrian incident isn’t something that really does throw a monkey wrench into the diplomatic machinery.,,2171003,00.html

  12. Nell (History)

    @British reader: Wouldn’t a foray like this be worth it to the IAF to test out Syria’s anti-aircraft system?

    The North Korea cover story makes it a nice two-fer: a chance to throw a spanner in the works of the six-party talks, a story which allies here will gladly spread.

    Of course, there’s still the North Korean reaction itself to be explained.

  13. oceanfront_property_in_krygyztan

    Whatever was taken out in northern Syria, at least we can take relief in that the free press is alive and kicking in the exemplary democracy that is Israel…

    See today’s Guardian story on Olmert’s news blackout on the Israeli strike at:,,2170629,00.html

  14. Andrew Foland (History)

    Although I had the same initial reaction about the phosphates, it seems like <a href=“”>it is at least possible</a> (which is, of course, different from plausible.) I can’t vouch for the website one way or the other, but there are other similar discussions online.

    There do seem to be <a href=“”>a few plants in the world</a> dedicated to extracting Uranium from phosphates, and specifically from fertilizer! (The agriculture angle enters…)

    To quote: “Typical concentrations in phosphate fertilizer are 4 Bq (= 0.32 mg) Uranium-238 and 1 Bq Radium-226 per g P2O5. “

    Apparently the process is not very economically viable.

  15. Andrew Foland (History)

    (My last comment having been said, even if it’s true, I’ll climb out on a limb and suggest that any nuclear program that has been reduced to leaching uranium from fertilizers is probably not one that’s going to be producing a critical mass of fissile material anytime soon.)

  16. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    By some chance, would the radars the Israelis bumped into (whether deliberately because they want to ‘test it out’ or not) are the same sets mounted on trucks that were intercepted and found in Cyprus in a NK freighter a bit back, found to be bound for Syria, and then released? Did Israelis or others get a good chance to kick the tires in Cyprus and plant bugs on it?

    If they are trying to get these sets characterized, it could be for operations in Lebanon, or Syria, or Iran assuming that some of the trucks / radar sets ended up elsewhere.

  17. Andy (History)

    The North Korean press release and reaction is not all that strange if one only does a bit of research. It’s actually in keeping with previous press releases:

    2003 in response to an Israeli attack on Syria.

    Similar DPRK announcements were made when Israel attacked a Syrian radar site in April 2001 and Israel’s war with Hezbollah last year. (Sorry, no links)

    In short, North Korea has long criticized Israel, particularly for actions it takes against Syria.


    It’s highly unlikely Israel would “test” Syrian Air Defense by flying through it – the risk is simply too great for a manned aircraft for a mere test.

    What’s clear is we don’t know for sure what Israel did – but it does not penetrate deep into Syrian airspace without what it perceives as good reason.

    Additionally, some of the reporting has indicated there was some kind of special forces team on the ground for target ID and lasing. This is very, very unlikely.

  18. James O'Brian

    I thought this was a horrible misstatement of the facts when the story came across my desk… Nk and Syria…??? Does this relationship even have cred?

  19. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Good news for all those arms control wonks that need to reference Judith Miller and Jayson Blair’s articles in the NY Times:

    September 18, 2007
    Times to End Charges on Web Site
    The New York Times will stop charging for access to parts of its Web site, effective at midnight tonight.

    In addition to opening the entire site to all readers, The Times will also make available its archives from 1987 to the present without charge, as well as those from 1851 to 1922, which are in the public domain. There will be charges for some material from the period 1923 to 1986, and some will be free.

  20. Dylan

    Ha’aretz report by Yosi Melman: “Records on North Korean Ship Docked in Syria Were Altered” 16/9/07

    Online databases tracking a ship reportedly flying a North Korean flag that docked in Syria have changed their records following a report in The Washington Post linking the alleged Israeli air strike in Syria to a North Korean shipment.

    Ronen Solomon, who searches information in the public domain for companies, told Haaretz he found references to a ship called Al Hamad on three different Web sites after the initial reports of the Israeli raid in Syria on September 6. These included the official sites of Syria’s Tartous Port and the Egyptian Transportation Ministry.

    Two of the three sites said the ship was flying a North Korean flag, and the third site reported it was flying a South Korean flag.

    Haaretz confirmed Solomon’s report.

    Saturday, the Washington Post published an article citing an American Mideast expert, who said a shipment that arrived in Syria three days before the alleged Israel Air Forces strike was labeled as cement, but that Israel believed it carried nuclear equipment.

    Following the Washington Post report, Solomon returned to the three sites, and discovered that all mentions of the North Korean flag on Al Hamad had been deleted, and that the ship’s flag was now registered as ‘unknown.’

    The official site of Syria’s Tartous Port,, had reported that Al Hamad, flying a North Korean flag and carrying cement, entered the port on September 3. Solomon stressed that several North Korean ships docked at Tartous during August.

    Syria said IAF planes entered its airspace on September 5.

    According to the site, the ship had passed through Tripoli port in Lebanon, Solomon said.

    He then found a site,, that said Al Hamad was registered as a 1,700-ton ship intended for general cargo and flying a North Korean flag. The ship had been built in 1965 and had had several owners, according to the site.

    In addition, Solomon found on the Web site of Egypt’s Transportation Ministry,, a record that Al Hamad had docked in Damietta Port Said in the Nile Delta about a month earlier, on July 28. However, this site registered the ship as flying a South Korean flag.

    Haaretz was able to access the Tartous Port Internet site until Saturday afternoon, after which it went offline for several hours.

  21. Karl Schenzig (History)

    Dear Mr. Lewis,

    You seem to exhibit a peculiar tendency to opt for spectacular explanations instead of obvious ones, just like US newspapermen. To my mind, the simplest explanation is that the site in question stored some nuclear-related wares that the Iranians bought from Kim. Those wares could have been virtually anything, not necessarily even radioactive. However, this does not change the key point that, should the story be true, Kim was trafficking nuclear knowhow to Ahmadinejad. Not a single one of the articles on this matter contradicts my version of events. This version also leaves no space for speculation about Syria, which is in any case irrelevant.

    As to Mr. Cirincione’s hysterics, they are unbecoming of an intelligent human being. The US government already had all the casus belli it would ever need against Iran, before the Iraq conflict of 2003. Iran’s support for terrorists and militant anti-American racists is not in dispute, so there is a prima facie case for the use of overwhelming military force against Iran. This has been the case since at least 1982, if not 1979.

  22. John (History)

    Let me see if I’m getting this straight: You’re blaming this on Bush? Based on the opinion of a member of a left-wing think tank?

    My God, there is nothing people won’t try to lay at the guy’s feet.

  23. yale (History)

    Uranium extraction from phosphate ores is an extremely large industry worldwide. It is a major source of uranium fuel for weapons and power. The US produces many hundreds of tons of uranium from this source annually. Syria (and next-door Iraq) have huge reserves of phosphates, and have built extraction facilities. The world’s pre-eminent agent of latent proliferation, the IAEA, assisted Syria in creating its phosphate-uranium skills.

    Whether or not this possible attack on Syria had anything to do with disabling the facilities, we should not ignore this very serious avenue to uranium stocks.

    I had previously alluded to this source in the ACW thread on accidentally incinerating uranium:

    Normal uranium emissions from … fertilizer plants, … and other sources infinitely dwarf this accident

  24. uralix (History)

    Excerpt from an article on Stratfor that adds one “baffling element” on the entire story

    “Then, during a meeting of Syrian and Turkish leaders, the Turkish government reported that two auxiliary fuel tanks from Israeli planes had been found in Turkish territory, close to the Syrian frontier. That would indicate that the Israelis were operating very close to the Turkish border, had been detected by the Syrians, released their fuel tanks and took off.”
    “The problem with this theory is not with the idea that a North Korean ship might be carrying nuclear equipment to Syria. The problem is the idea that Syria would have a nuclear research facility smack on its border with Turkey. Turkish-Syrian relations are not always warm, and in fact are frequently quite nasty. The idea that the Syrians would conduct ultra-secret nuclear research (or store such equipment) on the Turkish border is a little hard to buy. If we were them, we would like to see our valuable nuclear research out of mortar range of a hostile power — but perhaps the Washington Post’s expert is on to something.”

  25. Carl (History)

    Hypothetical: Israeli F-15 is picked up on radar sneaking around Northern Syria (or completes mission), kicks in the afterburners (or as quickly as possible while fuel is transferred from the exterior tanks) and heads north toward Turkish border, once secondary tanks are exhausted they are jettisoned and fall just over the border in Turkey.

    Syria is not that large of a country to cover especially for an F-15 to traverse at top speed. There is no reason to suggest, as Stratfor does, that a nuclear facility has to be anywhere with ‘mortar’ distance to the Turkish frontier. A facility could be well south of Lake Assad and still be an inviting target for snooping Israeli planes with a circuitous exit strategy.

  26. spacemanafrica

    As I mentioned earlier the target was near Deir al-Zur which puts it 50-70 miles south from the Turkish border. The Israelis could have simply dropped the tanks on their way out as they made their egress northward into Turkish airspace. They have dropped tanks into Turkey before.

  27. yale (History)

    Updating my phosphate/uranium comment a bit, the US production did stop after the 1990’s. The price of uranium collapsed and the phosphate mills curtailed U extraction, instead leaving the U in the waste stream. In the latter ’90s, about 1/6 of all domestic uranium production was from phosphate production.

    As the price have uranium has since bubbled back up due to speculation in the mostly hype nuclear power resurgence, fertilizer producers are now studying the possibility of re-starting production.

    For a proliferator, economics, of course, is not the ultimate factor in production (Iran building centrifuges as a case in point). Access to the needed bomb feedstocks is the only thing thats important.

  28. spacemanafrica

    It may download as a .zip file instead of .kmz, just change the file extension.

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