Jeffrey LewisAh, They Were Scuds

Did the Israeli’s hit a Scud shipment? That is what Chris Nelson suggested on 9/19:

In fact, as our headline, above, notes, we have absolutely solid information that the Israeli bombing raid on Syria was aimed at…and took out…missiles and/or weapons parts. Period.

All the stories being floated about Israeli intelligence sources hinting that it was a North Korean/Syrian nuclear weapons project, or site, are BS, albeit of varying motivation.

What remains under some debate is whether the missiles/parts can be 100% ascribed to N. Korea. Most unclassified evidence … points at Pyongyang.

And, from 9/20:

So for what its worth, our best sources continue to maintain the intel, such as it is, confirms “missiles and/or weapons parts”, most likely from N. Korea, and possibly including a Russian radar installation (which might have been helping guard the site).

Now that, in contrast to these silly nuclear weapons claims, is eminently sensible and consistent with intelligence reporting. The Neslon Report has been a god-send in sorting through this silly story.

The export of missiles is not strictly [see below] illegal — note the North Korean missiles shipped to Yemen — but then again one can imagine why the Israelis were annoyed enough to take a poke at the shipment.

Update: When thinking about the legality of the missile shipment, I was thinking about sanctions on Syria. I forgot that UNSC 1718 (October 2006) not only prohibits exports of certain goods to the DPRK, but also decides “that all Member States shall prohibit the procurement of [military items, including ballistic missiles] from the DPRK”. Thanks for Pieter Wezeman at SIPRI for pointing that out.


  1. MEC

    Thank you for posting what I was reading earlier in the day. I was beginning to lose faith in the academic community. The Nelson report can really hold its own.

  2. pieter (History)

    Importing missile technology from either North Korea or Iran is actually illegal under international law. UNSC resolution 1718 of October 2006 and resolution 1747 of May 2007 established embargoes on the export from North Korea and Iran of all arms and related materials. See

    That of course does not mean that an air strike on weapons delivered by these two countries will be considered by the UNSC as a legitimate way of enforcing UN arms embargoes.

  3. Dylan

    French Intelligence Online has similar claim..

    In attacking Dair el Zor in Syria on Sept. 6, the Israeli air force wasn’t targeting a nuclear site but rather one of the main arms depots in the country.

    Dair el Zor houses a huge underground base where the Syrian army stores the long and medium-range missiles it mostly buys from Iran and North Korea. The attack by the Israeli air force coincided with the arrival of a stock of parts for Syria’s 200 Scud B and 60 Scud C weapons.

    The parts were shipped from North Korea aboard a container ship flying the Panamanian flag. The U.S. Navy wanted to board the ship in Morocco’s territorial waters but Rabat vetoed the operation. The parts were loaded aboard six trucks in the Syrian port of Tartus on Sept. 3 and took three days to reach Dair el Zor. The trucks and their loads were destroyed the moment they arrived at the underground base. A unit of military police that escorted the convoy was also wiped out in the attack.

    Damascus immediately appealed to several Palestinian groups with strong ties to Syria to retaliate. But Hamas, whose strategy chief Khaled Meshal lives in exile in Syria, refused to act. That was also the case of Hezbollah, which sent its political adviser, Hussein Khalil, to Damascus to signify the movement’s reluctance to strike back at Israel.

    Khalil, who met with the head of Syrian military intelligence, gen. Assef Chawkat, as well as the official in charge of Lebanese affairs in the president’s office, gen. Mohamed Nassif, claimed that Israel would launch a new invasion of southern Lebanon if Hezbollah began firing at Israeli targets.

    It was finally Islamic Jihad in Palestine, a small movement headed by Ramadan Shallah and financed by Tehran, that fired two Nasser and Qods missiles at the Trilim base in the Negev desert on Sept. 12, wounding 70 Israeli soldiers who were sleeping when the missiles struck.

  4. Maggie Leber (History)

    Typo: Your link to the DNI PDF is broken… correct addy is

  5. pieter (History)

    If the US knew on which ship the Scud equipment was transported and also knew the whereabouts of the ship, what stopped them from boarding the ship in international waters instead of in Morrocan waters? As opposed to the case in which the US boarded a ship with Korean Scuds for Yemen, which was criticized as illegal, in this case they could have legitimized such action with the help of the UN embargoes on N Korean arms exports. They probably could even have asked or pressured the government of Panama to permit such action.

  6. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Could there be a grain of truth in both the ‘nuclear’ and the ‘Scud’ versions of the story?

    It is hard to imagine an airstrike on a load of missile parts (which probably means guidance systems and rocket motors) because they are so widespread and available in many states lined up against Israel.

    However, if there is something particular with that shipment —- ie giving Syria a WMD delivery capability beyond what they previously had, that would justify pro-active action from the Israeli perspective.

    It could be that Israeli intelligence just got it wrong.

    I am a bit intrigued that Syria claimed the strike originated in Turkish airspace.

  7. mhh

    why wait for the unloading of the missiles/parts and not stopping the ship psi-like at sea?

  8. Robot Economist (History)

    Dr. J – Two things:

    1. Your link to the DNI website is has an error in it. Clip your web address out of the destination URL.

    2. We should wary to assume that these “missiles and/or weapons parts” were transferred after the passage of UNSC 1718. North Korea sold Syria 150 SCUD-Cs the early 1990s and a (publicly) unknown quantity of SCUD-Ds around 2000-2001.

    Israel has known about Syria’s North Korean-made missiles for years, so the real question is what prompted last weekend’s attack.

  9. John (History)

    This confirms what seems to be the consensus now coming out from better mainstream sources, except that mainstream sources are now also suggesting that Syria is trying to aquire the capability to deliver chemical weapons (sarin, VX, and mustard) with Scuds. This would make Israel even more antsy than plain missile technology if true. I would like to see someone at ACW address this issue. Unless I am mistaken chemical weapons are just as much an arms control issue as nuclear and biological so you guys should have some insight on this. What do the wonks at ACW think of the recent Jane’s report of the Syrian accident several months ago which was supposedly associated with Syria attempting to mount chemical weapons packages on Scud missiles? Where is Syria going with chemical + missile technology? Is this just more BS or does it put the recent Israeli strike into even sharper context?

  10. SQ

    From the scanty information we have now, it may be assuming too much to conclude that they were Scuds. North Korea has a history of frequently upgrading Syria’s short-range ballistic missile force, and recently has been testing solid-fueled SRBMs. The possibility of Syria’s fielding a new missile type would also help to explain why the Israelis would risk an air raid when their main inclination has been to seek to reduce tensions.

  11. twodox (History)

    The Israeli site, Debka, reports that the attack was aimed at advanced Russian antiaircraft radar sites, which were successfully jammed. If so, it puts a big hole in the defenses of Syria and Iran.

  12. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    The Washington Post is now saying it is a nuclear site…

    Geeze.. how elusive is truth in this biz.

    It is time to send Amb. Bolton to Syria with a geiger counter.

  13. Rip (History)

    LTR –

    I believe the statement was violated Turkish airspace, not originated from. But in any case, you want to optimize the attack heading – particularly if you have bunker/tunnel entrances that are the desired target (does one still use the DMPI?).

    Look at a map. One twitch on the stick and you’re in Turkish airspace. I can tell you any mission planner in any air force is going to basically ignore a political limitation that would reduce a 360 hemisphere attack potential to a 180 hemisphere. In the mission planning brief I would bet the aircrews were told, “Oh! By the way, don’t penetrate Turkish airspace! (Wink-Wink)(Cough-Cough).

  14. Tom (History)

    At the risk of starting a new conspiracy theory…

    There are allegations that Ivan Safronov was tossed out the window in March by the Russian security services after he claimed he had “irrefutable proof” that Russia was secretly continuing with the decision to sell Syria the Iskander system.

    The introduction of the Iskander into the region, as supposedly Israeli anti-missile defences are incapable of intercepting the Iskander, would seriously alter Israel’s perception of it’s security and I think it’s safe to assume any incoming items would be a high priority target.

  15. spacemanafrica

    I liked this part from the Washington Times article:

    Some North Korean experts said they are puzzled why, if the reports are true, Pyongyang would jeopardize the hard-won deal with the United States and the other four countries. “It does not make any sense at all in the context of the last nine months,” said Charles “Jack” Pritchard, a former U.S. negotiator with North Korea and now president of the Korea Economic Institute.

    DPRK doing something unpredictable, possibly damaging, shortsighted and self-serving? How strange!

    Rip, I was under the impression they came in from Turkish airspace as well. It does seem they left by that route if dropped fuel tanks are any indication. There are many missing pieces to this story.

  16. spacemanafrica

    French Intelligence Online has the facts wrong on the retaliatory strike supposedly initiated by Syria. IJ and Co. attacked the Zakim base just north of Gaza on the 12th, hours after Abbas, Condoleeza Rice and Olmer met.

  17. jerry (History)

    I think a bigger story is how an Israeli sniper put a 50 caliber shell through a sarin warhead and killed dozens of Syrian and Iranian technicians.

    I’ll guess that N. Korea sent Syria some enriched plutonium or uranium, machines don’t warrant this sort of extreme air effort by Israel.

  18. TulsaTime (History)

    On the matter of that chemical warhead. I’ve seen reference to Sarin and VX. Would they be in the same projectile, or is this more sloppy reporting?

  19. Rip (History)


    A small operational nuance – one pickles-off the external fuel tanks before delivery – they should be near empty – a significant improvement in maneuverability results. A desirable state if one needs to dodge SAMs.

  20. PMH (History)

    Tonight, the Sunday Times is reporting that Israeli Commandos actually stole nuclear material from the site prior to the raid, and that there was legitimate North Korean involvement.

    Seems a bit more than just some Scuds….