About a month ago, the Israeli Defense Force bombed a target inside Syria. This is a bit of a problem for Syria.
If you believe the Syrian foreign minister, then the Israelis flew through the heart of his nation's air defenses--apparently undetected--to strike at targets near the country's eastern border. And it wouldn't be the first time that the IAF has accomplished such a feat; in 2003, Israeli jets struck a Palestinian terrorist complex near Damascus, taking advantage of confusion within the Syrian air defense system to bomb the target and escape, with no reaction from fighters or ground-based air defenses. The success of this particular raid suggests that despite a reported shake-up of the Syria's air defense organization, the system remains incapable of defeating an Israeli attack.
And, making matters worse, the IDF raid apparently included a ground attack, featuring commandos that were (presumably) ferried in by helicopter. While IAF CH-53 Sea Stallions have the range (540 NM) to reach distant targets, getting the chopper(s) and the commandos in and out of enemy territory was indeed an impressive feat. Apparently, the Syrians fared no better against the heliborne element of the mission than they did against the IAF jets. However, given the location of the target area--and initial Syrian comments about Israeli aircraft "coming out of Turkey," it's quite possible that the helicopters (and commando elements) staged from a "foreign" base.
The initial speculation was that the Israeli's were targeting a nuclear facility in Syria. More worisome was the idea that the facility was courtesy of the North Koreans.
But the real stunner in the Times report comes in the sixth paragraph, with this revelation from an unnamed member of the Bush Administration:
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. The administration official said Israeli officials believed that North Korea might be unloading some of its nuclear material on Syria.
"The Israelis think North Korea is selling to Iran and Syria what little they have left," the official said. He said it was unclear whether the Israeli strike had produced any evidence that might validate that belief.
The possible transfer of "nuclear material" from North Korea to other rogue states is something we've written about at length, including this most recent installment. Fact is, we don't know the full extent of the "relationship" between Pyongyang, Tehran and Damascus. Clearly, North Korea has been the primary source of ballistic missile technology for both Iran and Syria; both countries have active WMD programs and an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. But clear evidence of a nuclear transfer has never been offered, at least publicly.
The Israeli attacks looks like a major success for Israel and a major embarrassment for Syria.
Obviously, the Israeli strategy worked; the operation caught Damascus by surprise (there was apparently little reaction from Syria's air defense system); the Israelis inflicted serious damage on the target, and both the F-15I crews and the commandos escaped unscathed. Syria has threatened retaliation, but its options are limited. The odds of Syrian aircraft penetrating Israeli airspace are slim, and a missile strike would invite a devastating response, as would an attack across the Golan Heights.
Still, the Times article leaves a number of questions unanswered. We'll begin with the issue of Israel successfully penetrating Syria's air defense system. While it's happened before, the Syrian air defense network was supposedly re-organized after an embarrassing 2003 Israeli strike against a Palestinian terrorist camp near Damascus. During that raid, the Israelis reportedly exploited confusion over geographic responsibilities within the Syrian defense system. The most recent mission--which involved a much deeper penetration into Syrian territory--suggests that (a) Bashir Assad's air defense network hasn't improved, or (b) the Israelis are using more advanced measures to target the system, and render it impotent.
Then, there's the matter of that commando team. If the Times is correct, those personnel arrived in the target area a day ahead of the fighters, inserted (we'll assume) by Israeli Sea Stallion helicopters. As we've noted before, the successful infiltration of a commando team by helicopter, deep into Syrian territory, is an impressive operational feat, indeed. But getting the commandos (and their choppers) all the way across Syria (and back again), undetected, represents a monumental challenge, even for a state-of-the-art military like the IDF.
The success of the raid has given Iran serious concerns as well.
According to Strategy Page, Iran is a bit upset over the alleged "failure" of Russian air defense systems during the raid. Both Tehran and Damascus have spent billions on radar and missile systems built in Russia, with the assurance that such equipment could defend against an Israeli attack. Complaints that have made their way onto Farsi-language message boards (presumably from Iranian military officers) suggest that the IAF was able to blind Syria's defensive systems, rendering them useless. The Israeli strike package flew across hundreds of miles of Syrian airspace, strike the target and return, unmolested by air defense systems.
Iran's concerns are three-fold. First, there is logical speculation that the recent raid on Syria was a dress rehearsal for an attack on Iran's nuclear sites, although that raid would be larger and much more complex. Secondly, Tehran is footing the bill for Syria's most recent upgrade, the acquisition of the Pantsir-S1 air defense system. Iran is also slated to acquire the system, although initial deliveries were made to Damascus.
Equipped with two 30mm cannon and twelve Tunguska missiles, the Pantsir-S1 was supposed to provide point-defense for high-value targets--like that Syrian nuclear facility. The system's on-board radar can detect medium-altitude targets up to 30 miles away; the Pantsir's cannons are effective against targets up to 10,000 feet, and the missiles have a maximum range of roughly nine miles. In terms of close-in air defense, the Pantsir is supposed to be state-of-the-art, but it (apparently) proved ineffective against the Israeli raid.
Tehran's third concern? The Iranian air defense network is far more chaotic than its Syrian counterpart. In recent years, there have been credible reports about Iranian fighters sent out in pursuit of mystery lights and "UFOs," and near-fratricide incidents involving civilian airliners. If the Israelis were successful in blinding Syria's more centralized system (which covers a relatively small area), then they should have little problem in creating mass confusion within the Iranian network. Assuming that Israel eventually attacks, Iranian air defense crews could find themselves operating in a de-centralized mode, chasing targets that don't exist, and illuminating their radars with the knowledge that an anti-radar missile may be on the way.
Finally, the U.S. recently confirmed to ABC News that Israel did indeed bomb a nuclear facility in Syria.
The September Israeli airstrike on a suspected nuclear site in Syria had been in the works for months, ABC News has learned, and was delayed only at the strong urging of the United States.
In early July the Israelis presented the United States with satellite imagery that they said showed a nuclear facility in Syria. They had additional evidence that they said showed that some of the technology was supplied by North Korea.
One U.S. official told ABC's Martha Raddatz the material was "jaw dropping" because it raised questions as to why U.S. intelligence had not previously picked up on the facility.
Officials said that the facility had likely been there for months if not years.
"Israel tends to be very thorough about its intelligence coverage, particularly when it takes a major military step, so they would not have acted without data from several sources," said ABC military consultant Tony Cordesman.
Some in the administration supported the Israeli action, but others, notably Sect. of State Condoleeza Rice did not. One senior official said the U.S. convinced the Israelis to "confront Syria before attacking."
Officials said they were concerned about the impact an attack on Syria would have on the region. And given the profound consequences of the flawed intelligence in Iraq, the U.S. wanted to be absolutely certain the intelligence was accurate.
Initially, administration officials convinced the Israelis to call off the July strike. But in September the Israelis feared that news of the site was about to leak and went ahead with the strike despite U.S. concerns.
Jules Crittenden wonders what kind of stability the State Department was trying to protect.
There's the stability enforced by dictatorial regimes in places as Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia. There's the stability places like Lebanon and Iraq are barely managing to maintain ... no thanks to Syria, Iran, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Palestinians, etc., but thanks in large part to the Lebanese Army, the Israeli Defense Forces and the United States military. There's the stability of Gaza, accomplished in part when one group of Palestinian terrorists decided to throw the other group of Palestinian terrorists off rooftops, but really thanks to the Israeli Defense Forces, which make it impossible for either group to be much more than a nuisance. There's the stability of the West Bank, where they've had enough.
Anyway, so Israel gets the nod, blows up the Syrian nukes, and what happens? Nothing. Syria is hardly likely to want another humiliating ass-kicking. That leaves terrorism. ... That'd be different.
Just kidding. Except that ever since Israel introduced some stability to Lebanon, Hezbollah hasn't been quite on its game. The Lebs, meanwhile, appear to have watched and learned from the Israelis. Blowing the crap out of terrorists and those who harbor them works. It can actually introduce stability to places where stability had been wanting. So the Lebs have been taking care of business in the camps.
Just for the record, I fully support Israel's actions in humiliating Syria, scaring Iran, and reducing the threat the terrorist nutters in Hezbollah will get the bomb. Thank-you for doing what we won't and thank-you for seeing what we couldn't.