Mystery in Syria

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The recent Israeli air strike on a target in northern Syria remains shrouded in mystery. The governments of Israel and Syria won't comment publicly on what was attacked or why. President Bush pointedly declined three times this week to answer reporters' questions about the incident.

Why all the secrecy?

The likelihood is that those who know aren't talking because of the extraordinary sensitivity and magnitude of what occurred. Drawing together all the circumstantial evidence and the best informed speculation, here is what may have happened: After many months of intelligence gathering, Israel dispatched fighter-bombers to attack some sort of nuclear facility the Syrians were developing with illicit technical assistance from North Korea. In a Middle East already increasingly on edge over Iran's presumed drive for nuclear weapons, learning that Syria, too, may have nuclear-related ambitions is deeply unsettling, and not only to Israelis, Americans and Europeans. None of Syria's Arab neighbors, otherwise quick to denounce Israeli "aggression," uttered a peep of protest over the Sept. 6 attack.



If, in fact, North Korea is covertly working with Syria on anything related to the export of nuclear technology or materials, that would violate the Feb. 13 framework agreement. Under that agreement, Pyongyang pledged to give up its nuclear weapons program and to refrain from any nuclear proliferation. Oddly, North Korea immediately protested the Israeli strike, which certainly suggests some involvement or interest in whatever Syria was doing.

Israel's apparent willingness to act unilaterally to pre-empt any Syrian nuclear option surely sets off alarm bells in Iran, which may have been an ancillary objective of the Israeli strike. Any hope of deterring Iran from developing nuclear weapons may depend on demonstrating that at least Israel is prepared, as a last resort, to strike Iran's most important nuclear facilities. Bush may want to say nothing now about all this, first, to avoid confirming what the Israelis aren't willing to acknowledge publicly and, second, to protect the North Korean nuclear agreement from collapse. There may be a third reason, too, for Bush's silence. The Israelis are said to have kept the Bush administration informed about Syria's apparent nuclear project and, some say, to have obtained tacit U.S. approval for the air strike. Syria lacks the financial resources and the scientific-industrial base to pursue a nuclear weapons program on its own. What the Syrians might envision with covert assistance from North Korea is another matter. The poor man's alternative to real nukes is the so-called dirty bomb, conventional explosives wrapped in radioactive material. This is not a weapon the world should want Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to wield, or to pass off to any of the terrorist groups the Syrians sponsor.

Israel, it would appear, did what it had to do.

Reprinted from The San Diego Union-Tribune.
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