It's been five weeks since Israeli warplanes reportedly struck a Syrian nuclear facility near the Iraqi border, destroying "nuclear material" that was apparently supplied by North Korea.
We say "reportedly" because the raid has been confirmed in only the vaguest terms by Israeli officials, although there's been plenty of speculation in the press and the blogs (including this one) about the target that was hit, and how the air strike was carried out.
However, the closest any Israeli leader has come to an official acknowledgment was a statement by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Speaking on 19 September, he confirmed that the raid had occurred 13 days earlier, but offered only vague details of the mission. Privately, some Israeli officials have stated that the air strike targeted a Syrian nuclear complex that was equipped by North Korea, but they did not specify where the facility was located.
Tel Aviv's refusal to discuss the raid in detail is certainly understandable. As noted in previous posts, the mission was (apparently) a stunning success, and the Israelis don't want to reveal operational details of how they surprised the Syrians--again.
By most accounts, the raid unfolded quickly, in the middle of the night. A small formation of Israeli jets flew hundreds of miles through hostile airspace, struck the target and returned home safely, unmolested by Syrian air defenses. Some accounts suggest that a team of Israeli commandos also participated in the raid, highlighting targets with laser designators, or grabbing equipment or material from the targeted facility, depending on which version you believe.
There is also speculation that the commando force (and their transport helicopters) were pre-positioned in a neighboring country, reducing flight time and exposure in reaching the target. Basing support from a regional ally--say, Turkey--is another reason that Israel is reluctant to discuss the raid.
For it's part, Damascus has also been rather quiet since the air strike. Early claims that Syrian air defenses had driven off the IAF were quickly dismissed. Suffice it to say that Damascus's SAM sites, AAA batteries and fighter aircraft have a remarkably poor record in engaging Israeli aircraft. Indeed, the IAF has long demonstrated an ability to enter Syrian airspace at will and achieve its operational goals, often embarrassing Damascus in the process.
When the Syrians actually mount a defensive effort--as they did during the 1982 Bekka Valley campaign--their losses have often been staggering. The IAF shot down 80 Syrian jets in air battles over the Bekka Valley (with no losses of their own), and destroyed a number of SAM sites as well.
More recently, Syrian air defenses have simply failed to react during Israeli incursions into their air space, a response observed during a 2003 raid against a Palestinian terrorist camp near Damascus, and last month's attack on the nuclear facility. In both cases, the passive response was the result of several factors, including Israeli counter-measures, confusion in Damascus's air defense system, and a reluctance by Syrian commanders to directly challenge the IAF.
Unfortunately, such a timid response doesn't play well in Bashir Assad's dictatorship, or among his allies in the Middle East. That's why Damascus is trying a new propaganda ploy, suggesting that the Israeli raid never occurred. Government minders recently escorted a small group of journalists (including Hugh Naylor of The New York Times) to an agricultural reserach facility in Deir ez Zor, in eastern Syria, trying to prove that the complex was not the target of that Israeli airstrike.
As Mr. Naylor reports, the field trip was carefully contrived, but hardly convincing. For starters, the Israelis have never named the facility that was targeted by the air strike. The Deir ez Zor research complex was mentioned in an article by Israeli journalist Ron Ben-Yishai, who managed to slip into Syria and photograph himself in front of the research center. That little embarrassment--after all, Israelis are not allowed to enter Syria, let alone travel around the country--made the press tour an imperative.
During their visit, Naylor and the other journalists saw cultivated fields and research labs, but (obviously) no signs of a recent air raid or nuclear activity. The Times reporter did observe that the agricultural facility seems to employ a large number of graphic designers, and oddly enough, they seemed to know how Mr. Ben-Yishai entered their country (on a European passport, one volunteered. "It was definitely a German passport," added another "graphic designer."
That sort of clumsy propaganda effort is about what you'd expect from the Assad government, which doesn't understand that the usual lies, spooned out to a fearful Syrian public, don't work as well with western reporters--even representatives of The New York Times. And, it sounds like Mr. Assad's spin doctors could use a little remedial training in getting their stories straight. The "no air raid" tour came just days after the Syrian President told the BBC that Israeli jets struck "empty buildings," which was a departure from original claims that air defenses chased away the IAF.
However, the media excursion to Deir ez Zor does make a couple of things clear. The "non-existent" raid was a clear humiliation for the Assad government and its vaunted air defense network. And for a supposed "non-event," the Syrians are spending an unusual amount of time on damage control, an effort that will only intensify speculation about the Israeli air strike, and Damascus's own nuclear ambitions.