Monday, September 17, 2007
New Details (and Lingering Questions)
Israeli Air Force F-15Is (GlobalSecurity.org)
Sunday's U.K. Times provided tantalizing details of Israel's recent airstrike against that Syrian nuclear facility.
Based on reporting from the Middle East and Washington, the Times story confirmed that Israeli warplanes targeted nuclear materials that were apparently shipped to Syria by North Korea. The article also verified claims that the recent strike was an air/ground operation, with Israeli commandos providing laser designation for F-15Is, which dropped precision weapons on their targets.
Sources also tell the Times that the raid destroyed storage bunkers at a supposed "agricultural" complex along the Euphrates River, near the Iraqi border. The facility apparently gained the attention of Israel's intelligence services, which ordered additional overhead coverage of the target in recent months. According to the Times (and the Washington Post), the raid appeared to coincide with the arrival of a North Korean ship at a Syrian port. The North Korea vessel docked only three days before the airstsrike, carrying a cargo listed was as cement, but was suspected of concealing nuclear equipment.
Not surprisingly, the raid was cloaked in secrecy and deception--hallmarks of past Israeli military operations. Only three members of the Israeli cabinet knew about the raid in advance --Prime Minister Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister. To deceive the Syrians, Mr. Olmert reduced Israel's troop presence along the Golan Heights in the days before the attacks, suggesting an easing of tensions between the two countries.
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.
That raises another interesting question: where did the commandos and their choppers come from? The target also lies relatively close to Syria's northern border with Turkey, which just happens to have close military ties with Israel. It would be far easier for those Sea Stallions to infiltrate from an airfield or forward operating base in Turkey, rather than making the long trip across Syria. So far, little has been said about a possible Turkish "role" in the enterprise, despite the fact that the IDF has long trained in that country, and members of Turkey's armed forces routinely utilize Israeli military facilities.
There's also the possibility that the commando team staged from a location in Iraq, as suggested by the Times:
According to Israeli sources, American air force codes were given to the Israeli air force attaché in Washington to ensure Israel’s F15Is would not mistakenly attack their US counterparts.
But that's something of a red herring. The "codes" refer to signal transmitted by the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) transponders carried by all combat aircraft. But in a combat environment, attacking aircraft shut off their IFF before entering hostile airspace. Israeli jets attacking that Syrian "agricultural" complex (presumably) weren't transmitting an IFF "squawk." Moreover, the target is apparently far enough from the border that an accidental "intrusion" into Iraqi airspace--and targeting by U.S. jets--was a remote possibility, at best. And, the Israelis knew that our fighters wouldn't respond to an incident that was clearly within Syrian territory, and posed no threat to our own forces.
So why did the Israelis have our IFF codes? There are several possibilities. First, there's the slimmest of chances that the commando force staged from one of Saddam's old airfields in western Iraq. However, the chances of that happening are virtually non-existent; in today's Middle East environment, the U.S. can't afford to provide direct support to an Israeli strike on a Muslim nation.
On the other hand, there a better chance that the U.S. would allow a crippled Israeli aircraft to land at an airfield in western Iraq that is under our control. Al Asad Airfield, located 180 miles west of Baghdad would be the most likely candidate for a divert base; obviously, an emergency landing at Al Asad or any other U.S.-controlled airfield would be facilitated by transmitting the right IFF squawk, and preventing intercept by our fighters. There's also the possibility that Israel has made "other arrangements" within Iraq, and needed the IFF codes to simply allow transit through U.S.-protected airspace.
While the aircraft used on the Syrian raid--the F-15I--is no surprise, the inclusion of a ground team (or, at least their stated purpose) is a bit curious. As we noted last week, Israel's most advanced jet fighters are trained (and equipped) for employment of JDAM, which relies on satellite guidance. In many respects, that weapon would be a better choice for targeting the Syrian storage bunkers, since the guidance kit can be attached to virtually any type of conventional bomb (including penetrators), eliminating the need for ground designation. The presence of that commando team suggests that Israel was concerned about potential GPS jamming, or (more likely) the commando were dispatched to retrieve nuclear material from the site--a claim repeated in the Times' article.
Finally, there is still debate over exactly what was at the Syrian complex, and the urgency of the Israeli strike. In the Times' account, the target is alternately referred to as nuclear "material" and "equipment." Obviously, those descriptions are a bit vague, covering everything from fissile uranium (and other bomb components) to the machinery used in fabricating nuclear weapons. But then, there's this quote--from an Israeli source--which suggests the IDF were going after something much more ominous:
“This was supposed to be a devastating Syrian surprise for Israel,” said an Israeli source. “We’ve known for a long time that Syria has deadly chemical warheads on its Scuds, but Israel can’t live with a nuclear warhead.”
Truth be told, we may never know what was at that "agricultural center" along the Euphrates. But it is revealing that the Israelis, who had been watching the facility for months, suddenly elected to strike the complex, after that "cargo" arrived from North Korea. Something about the shipment spurred Israel to action, suggesting that it was more than equipment, or material that could be eventually used in nuclear weapons.
ADDENDUM: We're also a bit intrigued by claims that the targeted items were transferred to Syria by ship. While seaborne delivery is a more innocuous, it is suspect to intercept/boarding by U.S. or Israeli naval forces. Given that vulnerability, it seems strange that Pyongyang would ship that "material" by sea, especially when transport aircraft routinely fly between North Korea and Iran, and between Iran and Syria. Conversely, maritime delivery would make sense if the cargo was heavy or bulky--say, production equipment removed from a North Korean nuclear facility. The sea transfer might also reflect North Korea's concerns about obtaining required overflight clearances, or a potential refueling stop in a "third country," which would raise the prospect of an aircraft inspection and possible cargo seizure.
UPDATE: WorldTribune.com has more on the subject. A senior State Department official, Andrew Semmel, has confirmed the nuclear link between Damascus and Pyongyang. While he describes "contact" between Syria and suppliers of nuclear equipment, he did not indicate that Damascus had received a nuclear device from Pyongyang or other sources. But Mr. Semmel did note the large number of North Korean scientists and technicians in both Syria and Iran, another indication of how Kim Jong-il has "exported" his nuclear program.
WorldTribune also indicates that the Israeli strike package was relatively small, consisting of two F-15Is, four F-16Is and an electronic support aircraft. The website also reports that the raid was "coordinated" with the U.S. Draw your own conclusion.