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Doubts Israeli Air Strike Hit Syrian Nuclear Plant

Strong Doubts Israeli Air Strike On Syria Hit Nuclear Complex

By Sherwood Ross

Reports that the target Israeli fighters struck in Syria last September 6th was a nuclear reactor being assembled with North Korean help cannot be substantiated, according to a report by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.

Rather, the attack may have had more to do with probing Syrian air defenses--- thought to be similar to those employed by Iran---in the event of a U.S. attack on Iran.

Mohammed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA)told Hersh, "Our experts who have carefully analyzed the satellite imagery say it is unlikely that this building was a nuclear facility."

"We don't have any proof of a reactor---no signals intelligence, no human intelligence, no satellite intelligence," one former senior U.S. intelligence official told Hersh, whose article "A Strike InThe Dark" appears in the Feb.11th & 18th issue of "The New Yorker" magazine. A number of other authorities Hersh interviewed expressed like skepticism.

A former State Department official who now advises Congress on nuclear proliferation issues, said much of what one might expect to see at a nuclear site under construction was absent. "There is no security around the building. No barracks for the Army or the workers. No associated complex."

Another authority, Jeffrey Lewis, head of the non-proliferation program at think tank New America Foundation, of Washington, D.C., said the dimensions of the struck building, located on the banks of the Euphrates river 90 miles north of Iraq, were not large enough to contain a reactor and its control rods, plus there was no evidence in the published imagery of major underground construction. "All you could see was a box," Lewis told Hersh.

Joseph Cirincione, director for nuclear policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank, added, "Syria does not have the technical, industrial, or financial ability to support a nuclear-weapons program. I've been following this issue for fifteen years, and every once in a while a suspicion arises and we investigate and there's nothing. There was and is no nuclear-weapons threat from Syria. This is all political. I think some of our best journalists were used."

Reports that the small coastal trader Al Hamed may have been carrying materials from North Korea related to the facility's construction have also been questioned. "I've been at sea for 41 years, and I can tell you, as a captain, that the Al Hamed was nothing---in rotten shape. You wouldn't be able to load heavy cargo on it, as the floorboards wouldn't be that strong," said Martini Gotje of Greenpeace, a group that tracks international shipping.

A senior Syrian officer told Hersh that North Korean construction workers were employed at the site but that the project was not nuclear and most likely would have been used as a chemical-warfare facility. He said the site was in an isolated area and the Israelis "may have concluded that even if there was a slight chance (of it being nuclear)'we'll take that risk.'" Another Syrian official, though, denied the site was related to chemical warfare but was to be one of a string of missile-manufacturing plants, Hersh wrote.

Asked about the Israeli attack, Syrian Vice-President Faruq al-Shara told Hersh, "Israel bombed to restore its credibility, and their objective is for us to keep talking about it. And by answering your questions I serve that objective." Shara denied Syria has a nuclear-weapons program, adding, "The volume of articles about the bombing is incredible, and it's not important that it's a lie."

U.S. and Israeli officials have been "eager for the news media to write about the bombing," Hersh wrote. Former and current Israeli government and military officials are adamant that Israel's intelligence had been accurate. "Don't you write that there was nothing there!" an angry senior Israeli official told Hersh. "The thing in Syria was real."

The IAEA's ElBaradei, said, "If a country has any information about a nuclear activity in another country, it should inform the I.A.E.A. --- not bomb first and ask questions later."

Hersh reported that a former U.S. senior intelligence official said the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency believed Syria was installing a new Russian-supplied air defense system similar to the radar complexes in Iran. "Entering Syrian airspace would trigger those defenses and expose them to Israeli and American exploitation, yielding valuable information about their capabilities," Hersh wrote. The official told Hersh Vice President Dick Cheney supported the idea of the overflights because "it would stick it to Syria and show that we're serious about Iran." Hersh said Cheney's office declined to comment.

"Whatever was under construction, with North Korean help," Hersh wrote, "it apparently had little to do with agriculture(as one Syrian official alleged) ---or with nuclear reactors---but much to do with Syria's defense posture, and its military relationship with North Korea."


(Sherwood Ross writes for newspapers and magazines. Reach him at

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