Israeli Attack on Syria: The Quest for Unknown Unknowns

Trying to ascertain the background to the Israeli air attack on an unidentified Syrian target on 6 September brings to mind former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s beloved known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The event has been characterized by the paucity of verifiable information relating to the event. It was not until 2 October[1] that the Israeli military censor confirmed the attack actually took place, though details relating to the target and the nature of the attack remain ‘known unknowns’. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad provided slightly more detail the day before in an interview to the BBC,[2] stating that Israeli Air Force (IAF) planes had hit a military construction site in Deir Al-Azur in the north-east of the country. Other than the fact that Syrian air defences engaged the IAF, little else can be said with certainty. The Syrian President has stated that the attack confirms Israel’s ‘visceral antipathy towards peace’, and reserved the right to retaliate.

The dearth of factual reporting has not deterred widespread speculation as to the reason for the strike and the muted response from Syria.[3] One thing can be said with certainty. With Israeli soldiers kidnapped by both Hamas in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon, Israel would not risk placing its military personnel in danger in Syrian air space merely to rattle Syria’s cage. Speculation on the rationale for the attack has been extremely widespread. Theories have included: the Israeli need to restore deterrence after last summer’s war in Lebanon; an assassination attempt on Hamas leader Khaled Mesha’al; probing Syrian air defences in advance of a strike on Iran; a pre-emptive attack on a nascent nuclear facility being built with North Korean assistance; an attack on a Syrian unconventional weapons capability and a strike against a missile shipment heading for Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Anthony Cordesman provides a useful analysis of the imbalance of Syria and Israel’s military capabilities, concluding that ‘Syria may have seen a nuclear program as a compensation for its conventional weakness’.[4] Whilst Cordesman details the military and technical co-operation between Syria, Iran, North Korea and Russia, Syria’s known chemical and suspected biological capability and ballistic missile aspiration, he concludes there is no evidence of major progress in developing a nuclear capability. The Syrian Ambassador to the US has stated that such a move by Syria would be illogical:

‘The Israelis know very well, and the United States knows absolutely well, that there is no Syrian nuclear program whatsoever. It’s an absolutely blatant lie. And it’s not like they think we have but they’re not sure. They know. Let me be clear about it: Syria has never, ever contemplated acquiring nuclear technology. We are not contemplating it today. We are not contemplating doing this in the future – neither for military nor for civilian purposes.

All I’m saying is that every story that has to do with a Syrian nuclear program is an absolutely false story, full stop. Nothing whatsoever that Syria is doing has to do with nuclear technology for reasons that are simple for anyone to analyze: We are realists. We understand that if Syria even contemplated nuclear technology, then the gates of hell would open on us’.[5]

Although one must avoid the analytical trap of assuming others think and behave in a similar fashion, the trap of inappropriate analogy is equally apposite in this case. This attack was not analogous to the Israeli attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear complex in 1981. Discounting the question of Syrian technical proficiency to undertake a nuclear programme for military purposes, developing such a capability with North Korean support starts to stretch credulity. Despite the claims of there having been Israeli commando raids to recover evidence and the secret Israeli nuclear dossier on Syria codenamed ‘Orchard’,[6] on balance it appears unlikely the target of this raid was a nuclear facility under construction. Would North Korea threaten its own progress on the nuclear issue with the US by assisting the Syrians? Would the Syrians truly believe they could construct a site above ground without it being detected? Is the example of Iran’s stand-off with the international community one that Syria would wish to emulate? Given the closeness of their relationship and Iran’s relatively advanced nuclear programme, would Syria even need to risk developing such a capability?

Israel will strike at any threat to its existence. If Iran continues to defy international opinion and develops a nuclear capability, in the absence of a diplomatic solution, Israel will attack Iranian facilities.[7] The key here is that it will attack. It has not yet done so. Even if the site struck in Syria was part of an embryonic nuclear programme, such a Syrian capability would still be many years away, negating any argument to attack now.

An alternative hypothesis seeks to place the attack in a regional context, with the attack as a way of probing the international response to an ‘accidental’ war with Syria which would result in a regional conflagration engulfing the real US and Israeli target, Iran. The prospect of an ‘engineered provocation’ has been raised by US Vice President Dick Cheney’s former Middle East Advisor, David Wurmser.[8] For Jonathan Cook,[9] the rationale behind the attack is clear. The US and Israel plan to attack Iran. Syria, Lebanese Hizbullah and Iran, like the mooted regional Shia revival, present a threat to Israeli and US interests and must be addressed.

Speculation though it is, the attack of 6 September may have its origins in Israel’s key vulnerability to missile strikes. Israeli deterrence and the myth of invulnerability were lost on the asymmetric battlefields of south Lebanon in 2006. Whilst Israeli armour proved vulnerable, the population of northern Israel was exposed to a seemingly unending barrage of Hizbullah rockets. Discussions with the US in October about furthering collaboration on missile defence[10] attest to Israel’s vulnerability to this form of attack, be it from Gaza, Lebanon, Syria or Iran. Military technical assistance between Syria, Iran and Hizbullah is anything but new. The threat however is evolving and Israel will claim it needs to respond to changes in the strategic balance. Whilst a North Koreaninspired nuclear facility would be one such change, the reality is likely to be somewhat less prosaic. Israel is uniquely vulnerable to the threat of missiles. It knows that any attack from Iran or Syria could be responded to by nuclear means if required. A nuclear deterrent means Israel does not need to attack Syrian or Iranian missile capabilities. The situation is somewhat different however with armed non-state actors, such as Hizbullah in Lebanon. Israel succeeded last year in destroying Hizbullah’s longer range missile capabilities. Whether part of a longer term plan for a possible confrontation with Iran or in anticipation of a more parochial squabble over the blue line in south Lebanon, Israel cannot countenance the re-emergence of such a threat from Hizbullah.

Being wary of losing one’s way in the fog of war, one can posit that Israel’s strike on 6 September served two purposes. It was intended to restore military deterrence after last summer’s hostilities in Lebanon. At the same time, whilst the target of the attack remains unclear it seems probable that the attack may have been designed to address a key Israeli vulnerability, the threat of missile attack from one of its regional enemies.

Alistair Harris Beirut-based commentator on political and security affairs and author of ‘Bordering on the Impossible: Securing Lebanon’s Borders with Syria’, RUSI Journal Vol. 152, No.5.


[1] CNN < meast/10/02/israel.syria.ap/index.html>.

[2] BBC News Online < 7024287.stm>.

[3] For a chronology of press speculation on the attack, see < world/war/070906-airstrike.htm>.

[4] Anthony H. Cordesman, The Israeli ‘Nuclear Reactor Strike’ and Syrian Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Background Analysis, Center for Strategic and International Studies (24 October 2007) < 1024_syriannucl_weapcontext.pdf>.

[5] Syria Comment <>.

[6] < world/war/070906-airstrike.htm>

[7] See ‘Israel readies forces for strike on nuclear Iran’, The Sunday Times, 11 December 2005 < world/article757224.ece>.

[8] See Alastair Crooke’s ‘Ticking clocks and ‘accidental war’ in < and-accidental-war/>.

[9] Jonathan Cook, Why did Israel attack Syria? Electronic Lebanon < 13.shtml>.

[10] Cyber Cast News Service < ureaus.asp?Page=/ForeignBureaus/archive /200710/INT20071017e.html>. 

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