Monday, September 17, 2007

New Details (and Lingering Questions)

Israeli Air Force F-15Is (

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: 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.


Layman said...

Could not the choice of laser designation over GPS be a simple matter of accuracy? GPS is good, but laser designation is much better.

Lowly Knave said...

Hey 86-

Could this be the target?

Joker said...

You are giving the press far too much credit and you assume that "confirm" in the journalism world means "confirm" in the intel world.

In short, so much of the reporting on this incident is patently bogus.

Let's remember that North Korea went the plutonium route for their nukes - a plutonium route requires a heavy water reactor (and the supporting infrastructure) plus a reprocessing facility. Syria has neither the money, nor the technical expertise to develop or build them, and even if they did, we are talking decades until any capability is acheived.

It would seem more likely for Syria to get nuclear technology from Iran, which is going the uranium route. Uranium enrichment is much easier to hide since it doesn't require a reactor. Even so, we are still talking decades for any sort of nuclear capability.

In short, it's my contention the nuclear angle is a red herring and the strike was conducted against something more mundane.

A Jacksonian said...

Where did they strike? My operating assumption has been the combined nuclear team reported on last year. From Ray Robison on 11 NOV 2006 looking at FMSO and other document releases as seen by the NYT, in an Update:

UPDATE: Bumped from a few weeks ago due to renewed interest, thanks LGF, hotair, Floppingaces...several others
The article below comes from an Arabic reader who translated an article from a respected Arab media website. While I have no knowledge of the media source or the subject, I have high confidence in the translation and that the original article exists.

This article was posted on the Al Seyassah website on Monday the 25th of September 2006. Al Seyassah is Kuwaiti and one of the most reliable Arabic newspapers.

A Syrian nuclear program managed by Iraqi and Iranian scientists in the Al Haska area.

Brussels- From Hamid Geriafi

European intelligence sources based at the headquarters of the European Union in Brussels released information yesterday about the "presence of an active Syrian nuclear program in a secret location Northeast of the country, being supervised by nuclear scientists from Iraq, Iran and some scientists of the previous Muslim Soviet Republics, and it seems that the program has reached the stage of medium activity".

The information, which Al seyassah got from British security sources in Brussels, revealed that "the brother of the Syrian president, Major Maher Al Assad -in charge of the Republican Guard brigade- along with his maternal cousin of the Makhlouf clan are supervising this program since the end of 2004 in the Northeastern district of Al Haskah situated next to the Iraqi and Turkish borders and which has a Kurdish majority".

The information - of which the British security sources hinted that it might be coming from the German intelligence which is active in some Middle Eastern countries- revealed that "the Syrian nuclear program is relying on equipment and materials that the sons of the deposed Iraqi leader, Udai and Qusai supervised their transfer to Syria by using dozens of civilian trucks and trains, before and after the US-British invasion in March 2003". Therefore according to those sources, the international inspection teams or the British and US intelligence could not find one "nuclear needle" in Iraq even though everybody knew about the existence of a huge program since the end of the seventies, before the Israeli planes struck and destroyed its main reactor in the Tuwaitha area near Baghdad in 1981.

The British security sources in Brussels assure Al Seyassah that "Iranian nuclear scientists are cooperating with their expertise, equipment and materials in addition to approximately 60 Iraqi nuclear scientists" that had found refuge in Syria after the onset of the war in Iraq and around 20 scientists that had moved from the former Soviet republics at the beginning of the nineties after the collapse of the Soviet Union and after the first government of Gorbatchev pulled out its nuclear weapons from those new republics".

The sources said that "the Iranians are supporting the Syrian nuclear program, which was originally built on the remains of the Iraqi program after it was wholly transferred to Syria, with materials, equipment and expertise which are more advanced than it originally was. The Iranian could have brought up an advanced plant to enrich Uranium, of which the West is totally unaware."

I have also built a list of Syrian WMD and major facilities and did a bit of IMINT using open source image via Google Earth. The sites, save for two, were all locatable, including the underground facilities: al-Safira, Tal Snan and Khan Abu Shamat. al-Baida remains lost in poor imagery, but the source for that has been right on every other instance given for facilities in Syria. Also used in building the list were FAS and GlobalSecurity references, and imagery where available.

That leaves the Hasaka facility, which is the other one that I can't find. For that the references are a bit vague as to location. If you read 'northern Syria' and 'by the Euphrates' that puts a likely suspect - the Deir Zzor university agricultural facility on the banks of the Euphrates about 40-50 miles as the crow flies from Iraq. That site is also lost in blobography but not as bad as al-Baida, and the facility outlines are visible. What is lacking is the SA-2/3 protective net... go through the Khan Abu Shamat to al-Safira corridor and you hit one nasty set of air defenses. Out by Deir Zzor? A small airbase but no hints at SAM capability, unless it is MANPAD.

The only thing going for that site, beyond obscurity, is a rail line connecting it to the Palmyra phosphate ore processing facility and finally, on the other side of Syria, the SAEC plant by the lake at Homs. The negatives are that all the missile capability is in that corridor in which Homs sits, and not out by Deir Zzor. A good and central place to marry those up would be at the SCUD facility at Khan Abu Shamat.

To get a good scoping out of who is working at such a facility, and what their equipment is and the sorts of traffic it gets, while UAVs may serve for some things, there are a couple of things on the ground that you would like to know before you hit a place like that. And to stage into there, the H3 bases (at least three by my count) in Iraq near Jordan would be prime sites, I should think, along with Ruwayshid, or the H2 base, or the little airstrip at Shab Al Hiri near the Akashat phosphate mine... you know, I never pictured the Israeli's as needing a 'full service airport' and the folks there seem more than capable on doing a DIY sort of deal on an abandoned one. Or even a flat salt lake bed, of which there are tens if not hundreds across that part of Jordan/Iraq/Syria.

No real way of knowing on what we have right now...

The Deir Zzor facility pointed out by lowly knave is a petroleum complex. That is a prime oil and gas region of Syria.

Lowly Knave said...

Crap. OK, so I'm an idiot. So what?

I'll keep looking.

Thanks Jacksonian.

John said...

I really doubt the US would permit diversion to Al Asad. The place is crawling with contractors and TCNs...impossible to keep an Israeli jet there secretly.

JD said...

John, I think diversion of a damaged aircraft could be spun more easily than a joint raid using a US base in Iraq. (Something like an air emergency instead of actual combat support.

Spec Ops on the ground could be becuase of target confirmation and damage assesment. Laser designation was just icing on the cake as GPS might have been good enough if necessary.

My two cents.

Frank said...

I say Colonel Mustard in the Conservatory with plutonium hidden in a load of cement and commandos for damage assessment or (hey, it's the IDF's best) acquisition of the item/s.

Spook86 said...

Jacksonian--Absent more definitive information, I think the facility you identified--Deir Zzor university agricultural complex--is the most likely candidate for that recent Israeli raid.

True, the air defenses in that area aren't particularly dense, but don't let that fool you. Syria has grown progressively better in its denial and deception practices over the past decade. They understand that even a gradual build-up of air defenses (in an area that has lightly defended in the past) may provide a tip-off to potential adversaries. For that reason, the Syrians might have elected to minimize air defenses in that particular area. Another possibility: the nuclear activity was still in the early stages, and Damascus made the decision that an expansion of air defenses could wait.

Additionally, don't discount the possibility that mobile AD systems might be in the area. Early reports suggested that the IAF engaged/destroyed firing units associated with that new gun/missile AD system that Syria has purchased from Russia. There's also the chance that SA-6s and/or SA-8 mobile SAMs were in the area, and simply aren't visible on commercial satellite imagery. Some IDF contacts I've spoken with tell me that Syrian camouflage of their mobile SAMs has greatly improved since the 2003 air raid. So, Damascus may have been using mobile--and more easily concealed--AD systems to protect the nuclear site, versus the fixed-site SA-2s/3s, which have a very distinctive imagery signature.

Whatever the Syrian defense plan, it didn't work very well. I still find it stunning that the IAF strike package flew across the country, struck the target and escaped, with minimal reaction from the Syrians. And remember: Syria's AD network was reworked following that 2003 IAF raid, to prevent a "lack of response" during future incursions. As I pointed out in the blog, the success of the airstrike--and the lack of a Syrian response--suggests that the IAF may be using other tools to take down the AD system. Information warfare, anyone? And BTW, that sort of operation could provide a better explanation for the commando team on the ground. Dig up a fiber optic cable (linking Syria's closed-loop AD system) and insert a virus, designed to go active just as those IAF jets penetrate Syrian airspace.

Sheer speculation (at this point), but you've got to wonder...

Spook86 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alakazot said...

They would need laser designation by people on the ground if they were trying to destroy specific, recently-arrived items, as opposed to just attacking the facility. Destroying the entire facility would require a much larger strike package.

Your analysis of the IFF codes is confused, or else you're assuming the Israeli source is lying or misreported. The quote states that US codes were provided "to ensure Israel’s F15Is would not mistakenly attack their US counterparts" not to keep the US from attacking the Israeli jets. I suppose they were afraid they would have to enter Iraqi airspace ("boogie to Bagdhad" as it were) under hot pursuit by Syrians, and wanted to ensure they didn't kill an ally by mistake. Being able to KEEP from getting killed by the ally would, of course, be quite important to the individual pilot, but would not be as big a diplomatic consideration.

blake1969 said...

It has been hinted that Israeli commando units are in Kurdish areas of Iraq for quite some time.
However perhaps the laser designators were not Israeli maglan.

Just a thought.

section9 said...

I'm not quite sure the Syrians weren't subcontracting out for the Iranians. That sounds more likely.

Either way, Tehran is rather jumpy in the aftermath of the strike. Threatening missiles all around and all that noise.

Way I heard it, the whole mission was pointless without someone to go in and pull out the nuclear material. That's Sayeret Metkal stuff.

Entire operation staged out of Turkey, imho, although there is a remote possibility that it staged out of some anonymous airstrip in Nineveh Province.

Corky Boyd said...

The only reason the US would share IFF codes with the Israelis is if the Israelis were to transit US controlled or protected airspace. Thus the inference they used Iraqi airspace during the mission into Syria. During the first Gulf War the Israelis wanted to conduct their own response to the Scud attacks on their country. Such a response would have shattered the coalition which consisted of many Arab countries including Syria and Egypt. At best, the Israelis could have sustained about 350 combat sorties a day when the allies were conducting 3,500. For the Israelis to succeed they would have to be assigned a corridor which would have interfered with coalition operations. The Bush 1 administration wisely refused to share IFF codes with the Israelis. If they decided to conduct their own operations they would be identified as non-friendlies with all the consequences. They decided not to retaliate on their own, but they were bitter with the US position.

IFF is normally on during combat but it can only be interrogated with encrypted signals, unlike normal civilian transponders. A friendly response is just that. No response indicates a non-friendly status.