They say, if you do not follow the Middle East for three days you miss the whole story, but if you do not look at anything for ten years, you would not lose anything. The same thing might be told of Israel’s Syrian affairs.
Israel is alarmed at the increasing Iranian presence in Syria once more, especially after the trilateral summit between Russia, Turkey, and Iran, and it seems to be turning to the self-help option at a time the U.S. announced its intentions to leave Syria. Despite the strikes on April 14, Donald Trump did not reverse the decision to leave Syria. That is the chief alarming factor for Israel. Currently, Israel is closely monitoring the Syrian case through the consolidation of an axis that — it perceives — might turn the tide against itself. A short while before the U.S., British and French Coalition struck a Syrian air base in Damascus, Israel released the minute details of an Israeli airstrike on a nuclear reactor in northern Syria carried out in 2007. Soon afterwards, it hit an Iranian drone base in Syria and recognized the strike almost after a week. These recognitions have not come for no reason, obviously. Previously, Former Israel Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Eitan Ben Eliyahu pointed out to the chemical attack in Douma on April 7, two days before the Israeli strike on the Iranian base, and said, “such an attack on civilians could not have gone without a response.” However, almost everyone agrees on one thing: Israel is rather concerned about the growing presence of Iran in Syria more than anything else.
-Outside the cube
Detailed accounts as to what happened on Sept. 6, 2007 flooded the Israeli media and the international news outlets once Israel acknowledged its strike on an alleged Syrian nuclear reactor back in 2007. The operation remained top secret until after 10 years. This is the first time Israel confirmed a strike on Syria and publicly disclosed the details at an interesting moment.
Amidst the fury and surprise of the confirmation, a hot debate started in the establishment: How come Israel could not have noticed an almost complete nuclear reactor that had the capacity to produce nuclear weapons? According to some, it was the biggest intelligence failure, even bigger than the Yom Kippur War in 1973 when Egypt and Syria launched a war against Israel on a day when all of Israel was in total silence due to the religious mourning day of Yom Kippur.
The detection of the Syrian nuclear reactor came after Israel’s realization that earlier it had failed to detect the nuclear reactor in Libya and came to know about it only after Americans and the British persuaded Gaddafi to dismantle it. All this while, for almost 8 months, they had known nothing about it, Israeli intelligence officials realized. The failure to detect the Libyan reactor in 2003 led to a bureaucratic crisis and an investigation by the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset. Mossad started to back-analyze the Libyan program and look around the region where else such a program might be hidden.
The detection of the alleged Syrian reactor came four years later, and showed Israeli intelligence that the past lessons had not been learnt enough. This was the beginning of a period of perpetual suspicion vis-à-vis the countries in Israel’s vicinity. The historical memory of the Israeli strike on Iraq’s Osirak Nuclear Reactor in 1981 and the Begin doctrine were hovering in the minds. Menachem Begin, the then prime minister, said Israel would not allow any potential enemy in the Middle East to acquire nuclear weapons. Between the memory of Osirak and the tense atmosphere of regret in regard to the Syrian reactor were plans to strike “The Cube”. Nothing seemed to lie inside the mysterious concrete building in the middle of the desert, around which rubble had been scattered and no roads built. No nearby settlements or factories, either. The interior of the desolate building remained a mystery for Israel until a group of Mossad agents broke into a room, where Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission, stayed, and pulled out all the information from his computer when he was on a visit to Austria for deliberations at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Among other things, there were 35 photos of the reactor. Some of the people in the photos were Korean construction workers and engineers. It became apparent that it had been built with the help of North Korea. And it was nearing its completion.
Back then Israel started to prepare for a strike on the Cube. On the other hand, it started a diplomatic initiative in the U.S., preparing the atmosphere for a strike in Syria, trying to persuade George Bush to that end. It had to be now, according to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, before they lost the element of surprise in case of its becoming known to the public, in which case Syria could play for time. Olmert did not get a positive reply from the Bush administration regarding a material U.S. support. “I am able to defeat Syria,” said Olmert in that conversation, “but I need you to act there specifically because of the Iranian nuclear program.” It was not the first time Israel looked at Syria and saw Iran; it would not be the last, either.
It is, however, the first time that Israel released the details of a secret operation carried out in the territory of a neighboring state, including the discussions in the intelligence circles. That looks like an apparent response to the current situation in Syria, at a time the concerns about the Iranian presence in the territory are being openly voiced. After a short period of murmurs on the 2007 Israeli strike, an Israeli official on April 16 admitted the strike against the T4 Drone Base, adding that it was the first time Israel had attacked live Iranian targets in Syria, around a week after the strike. Israel’s admittance of the strikes in Syria at a time when numerous voices are being heard in favor of further involvement in the Syrian crisis via warplanes and missiles reflects Israel’s hawkish position to establish itself in Syria against Iran, just like it used to do since the very beginning.
Nevertheless, the current picture is more complex than it has been in the past as Israel goes to Syria to fight Iran and finds Russia before itself. That came at a time Donald Trump revealed the U.S. intentions to leave Syria. It was told that this might be the first point of friction between the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister regarding Middle Eastern issues, because while Netanyahu continuously asserts that Israel has no limits in Syria in the case of a perceived threat directed against Israel, Trump revealed the U.S. plans to go out of Syria soon. For Israel, that means a cold encounter with the reality of Russia in Syria while going after Iran.