Close: Israeli Intelligence behind Syria Strike not Persuasive

The NYT has been pushing the story that the Israeli air strike on Syria on September 6 came in response to intelligence that Syria was building a nuclear reactor at the site with clandestine North Korean help. There are reasons to question the accuracy of the Israeli story, which at some points has included allegations that there was evidence of enriched nuclear material at the site; such material could only be produced at the end of a long research and construction project, not at the beginning. The Israelis are trigger-happy and their intelligence on the Arab world is most often sloppy (the then head of Mossad is still insisting that Iraq had WMD), so one cannot assume there was anything to their apprehensions. In the absence of any inspection of the bombed site, one cannot assume there wasn’t, either. Some analysts think the site was just run of the mill anti-aircraft batteries newly bought from the Russians. The strike probably killed the November peace process summit that Condi Rice had been working toward; Syria says it won’t attend.

Retired CIA analyst of Arab affairs Ray Close tells us what he thinks about it all:

“This is my Monday morning (speculative) analysis of the mysterious Israeli air attack on Syria on September 6, 2007 . . :

1. The Israelis offered us intelligence that Syria is beginning to develop a nuclear capability based on North Korean technology. They urged the US to cooperate with them in mounting a military attack to destroy the Syrian site. The advantages of this action, as presented to the Bush administration with great urgency by the Israelis, would be:

a. To preempt a new and dangerous violation of Israeli and American proliferation red lines before the Syrian program gets too far along (citing the Iranian experience for justification);

b. To intimidate and embarrass Syria; throw a scare into Iran; and restore Israel’s deterrence credibility. (The historic examples of dramatically successful and awe-inspiring Israeli operations at Entebbe and Osirak, among others, still have great psychological and emotional impact.)

2. The more cautious and thoughtful members of the Bush administration opposed offering Israel the full participatory collaboration of the United States on the grounds that:

a. The Israeli intelligence in this case was not entirely persuasive, recalling instances of flawed intelligence of similar origin that misinformed some key US actions before and during the Iraq war;

b. If covert US-Israeli collaboration in this operation (technically an act of war) were actually proffered, this would eventually become known. The accuracy and authenticity of the Israeli intelligence on which the operational decision was justified would (in the absence of more credible supporting evidence from independent US sources), become the subject of heated public debate all over the world, and opponents of the Bush administration would argue with potentially devastating effect that this was final proof that Bush neocons have continually (in fact, going back many years) been duped by deliberate Israeli disinformation operations aimed at scaring America into adopting a policy of more overt and aggressive military cooperation with Israel;

c. Even if the Israeli intelligence were finally revealed to contain some credible evidence of Syria’s long-range ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons and of North Korea’s culpability in abetting those plans, the revelation of US-Israeli covert military collaboration against Syria at this critical time would, over the short term, endanger George W. Bush’s desperate hopes of achieving some dramatic diplomatic successes before the end of his administration —- most importantly with respect to North Korea and next month’s planned Middle East Peace talks here in the US.

3. Ongoing heated arguments within the administration over whether or not to coordinate US and Israeli actions and reactions in this instance have been won, at least temporarily, by the side that gives higher priority to preserving and sustaining the diplomatic efforts, on the grounds that short-term progress in both the North Korean and Israeli-Palestinian situations should trump, at least for the time being, the acknowledged high value also attached to the more aggressive alternative measures urgently and vigorously advocated by the Olmert government in Israel and by Israel’s supporters here in the United States.

4. There are undoubtedly some Democratic notables, in key Congressional positions of leadership and on the electoral hustings, who have been officially briefed (or who have been independently informed by interested third parties) of the whole set of considerations outlined above, and who have, for reasons best known to themselves, decided to support the more cautious objective of keeping this potentially explosive issue under wraps for as long as possible. (I don’t discount at all the possibility that some support, probably in the form of technical intelligence, was nevertheless indeed provided to the Israeli planners by the US before or during the bombing operation. That just qualifies as a small skeleton in the closet compared to the backlash we would suffer for active operational collaboration in such an undertaking.)

Personally, I believe that the most persuasive reason for studied silence on this subject, on the part of both Republicans and Democrats, is the reluctance (call it fear) of individual politicians that they might be put in a position of appearing to criticize Israel for poor judgment (or even deliberate deception), and thereby appearing to oppose intimate collaboration with Israel (yes, even in acts of illegitimate preemptive military action) against “supporters of terrorism”.

I would add the following personal comments to my analysis of the situation:

Having dealt with Arabs for more than fifty years now, often in situations very similar to this one,I have no trouble understanding why the Syrian reaction to the Israeli bombing attack last month has been carefully muted. Asad cannot afford a military confrontation with Israel at this time. His air force and army could be effectively wiped out by the IDF in a few hours. And he has no desire to broadcast the fact that his air defense forces (some of which, I am told, consist of very expensive new ground-to-air rocketry purchased from Russia but not yet operational) were impotent to respond in the face of such a deep and brazen Israeli penetration of the Syrian motherland. It would be plainly foolhardy for the Syrians to attempt confrontation with the IDF when their military establishment is in such a parlous state as it is today. I therefore find it perfectly understandable that Asad has chosen not to fly off the handle over this incident, and why his Arab neighbors and supposed brothers in arms have likewise decided that the better part of valor is to pretend they haven’t noticed.

I recall in the period right after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when I was in liaison with the Saudis, that the Israeli Air Force used to make frequent very low level runs over the Saudi airbase at Tobuk, in the northern part of the country. As they skimmed the “deck”, they would drop empty fuel tanks on the runways, near where the Saudi fighter planes were lined up, just to remind those on the ground that the empty tanks could very easily have been 500-pound bombs. It was nothing more than an arrogant demonstration of contempt for Saudi impotence. It worked. The RSAF never fired a shot, and never scrambled a single interceptor. They would complain to me, and I would duly forward their protests to CIA HQS. We never got even a polite acknowledgement back from the Israelis, who, in their arrogance, were no doubt cynically amused. So I can easily imagine Bashar al-Asad’s decision to play this current incident in a very low key! It is not a mark of cowardice, but of realism and prudence.

Similarly, I recall when Prince Fahd bin Abdal Aziz called me to a meeting very late one evening in the early days of the 1973 war and asked me to send an urgent personal message from him to Richard Nixon informing the president that he had felt obliged to contribute a brigade of Saudi troops to the Golan front to support the Syrian offensive there, but that he had personally instructed the commander of the unit not to fire a single shot. That, Fahd told me with considerable emotion and obvious sincerity, was his solemn promise to his American friend. Again, prudence, wisdom, and desire to maintain a traditional and mutually valuable relationship — motives that were not, I regret to say, received in Washington with the respect and appreciation that they deserved. “

-Ray Close

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