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Sol Salbe: Israel's Syria Incursion

Israel's Syria Incursion

Compilation/Analysis by Sol Salbe

Last Thursday week Israeli Air Force planes crossed the border into Syria. That is one of the few uncontested facts in a story that remained alive for nearly a fortnight. It is one of the most difficult stories that this reporter has ever encountered. While it was possible to cull together several dozen pages of notes, the amount of the actual useful and reliable information contained therein was miniscule.

Unusually we don´t have even the full Syrian and Israeli versions. The Syrians have been very sparse in the details they have released and the Israelis have imposed an amazingly affective news blackout. This is unheard off proposition in a country where cabinet leaks are the order of the day, and where each cabinet minister has his-or-her favourite journalist and vice versa. On Sunday journalists were not allowed into the cabinet room until all ministers were safely ensconced in their seats making private conversations impossible, such was the control being imposed.

The Strategic forecasting group Stratfor summarised our initial knowledge: "The story began Sept 6 with a report from Syria that an Israeli aircraft had dropped ordnance over northern Syria and had been forced by Syrian air defences to retreat from Syrian airspace. Syria reported sonic booms in the North as, they would have it, the Israeli plane went west toward the Mediterranean at supersonic speeds. This was mysterious, as the Syrians reported no damage and only a single plane."

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While there was some curiosity as to what it was all about, the story got wings, so to speak, when the Turkish authorities discovered on their territory empty fuel tanks dropped by Israeli F-15 jets. [Israel has received the most up to date version of these planes which are designed for tasks such as bombing Iran nuclear facilities.] This was followed in quick succession by various leaks to the quality British and US media from, generally unnamed, Israeli and US sources. Almost every imaginable speculation was entertained: The Turks were helping Israel; no they were not - the exercise was designed by the Israeli and Turkish military to show the newly re- elected Islamic party in Turkey just who was really in charge. The attack was designed to hit a nuclear facility, no it was in exercise in testing the new Russian-made air defences (some of which have already found their way to Iran.) No it was normal reconnaissance operation. And so on and so forth.

Some of the leaks came from sources which newspapers like the Washington Post deemed reliable enough to quote. But the blog comment by Gideon Lichfield, Jerusalem reporter for the Economist, about the report in the London Times applied to them all: "Uzi Mahnaimi, the Sunday Times´s man in Tel Aviv, is a former Mossad man known for having excellent security sources. But as I´ve discussed before, journalists in that position are also susceptible to being fed misinformation and printing it, knowingly or otherwise."

So it´s time to look at some of the speculation and see how it stands up to some analysis. Let´s start with the big one: the nuclear issue. That one does not make much sense. Syria has been going out of its way to try to please the US and Israel. To host a North Korean nuclear facility will go against the grain. And a what a strange location for a nuclear facility: right next to the border of Israel´s best ally in the region. Stratfor put it this way:

"The problem with this theory is not with the idea that a North Korean ship might be carrying nuclear equipment to Syria. The problem is the idea that Syria would have a nuclear research facility smack on its border with Turkey. Turkish-Syrian relations are not always warm, and in fact are frequently quite nasty. The idea that the Syrians would conduct ultra-secret nuclear research (or store such equipment) on the Turkish border is a little hard to buy. If we were them, we would like to see our valuable nuclear research out of mortar range of a hostile power -- but perhaps the Washington Post's expert is on to something."

Israeli journalist Yigal Laviv was also sceptical in his comments on the Israeli news website Nana [Na´ana -mint in both Hebrew and Arabic]: "The Israeli prime minister and American president have a clear way of verifying what happened. They can analyse the satellite images from before the attack and after and see what happened. There's no doubt that this has already been done. The fact is that neither Israel nor the U.S. have published the data. The governments of Israel and the U.S. both want to increase pressure on Syria and prevent any peace agreement between it and Israel. Were there in their hands reliable proof that served this purpose, they would take great pains to publish it. Not publishing reliable data like satellite photos of the area attacked shows that the images provide nothing useful for both nations." [Richard Silverstein´s translation.] Lichfield himself added: "But thenagain, if there was nothing incriminating in Deir al Zur, surely Syria would be doing the same."

Even the South Korean government thought it was nonsense: "South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-Soon on Monday dismissed US media reports suggesting that North Korea may be helping Syria build a nuclear weapons facility, saying there was no concrete evidence.

"´Nobody presents firm evidence while talking about the suspected North Korea-Syria links,´ Song told reporters. `If Syria received nuclear materials from North Korea, it must have a facility to store them. As far as I know, Syria has no nuclear (storage) facility.´

"The minister also pointed to discrepancies in the reports on the level of cooperation between Pyongyang and Damascus. The New York Times and Washington Post reported, citing unnamed sources, that North Korea could be helping US arch-rival Syria build a nuclear weapons facility. The Washington Post quoted unnamed intelligence sources as saying the Israeli secret service had relayed the information to the US government, which it described as `dramatic.´ Kim Myong-Gil, North Korea´s deputy UN mission chief, has dismissed the media reports, telling South Korea´s Yonhap news agency on Sunday: `They often say things that are groundless´."

Of course, unlike the neocons who are trying to scuttle North Korea´s deal to desist from acquiring nuclear weapons, the South Koreans very much want it to succeed.

One of the more fascinating aspects has been the reaction inside Israel. Ynetnews reported that without being told one word of what happened, Israelis backed the operation. A full 78 per cent supported it while only 10 per cent opposed it. Consequently Ehud Olmert´s support jumped by a 10 percentage points from 25 to 35.

Yigal Laviv compared it to the "night of the water ducks" when back in 1959 a routine call-up of military reserves escalated into a regional standoff that nearly led to war between Israel and her Arab neighbours. He notes that Menachem Begin, then head of the Opposition, went to the rostrum of the Knesset and blessed the military enterprise whatever it might be without even knowing anything about it. Laviv says that Israelis today are in almost the same boat. Except for knowing there was an attack of some sort they know nothing else for certain.

That kind of support extended right across the political spectrum in Israel. Silverstein who happened to have attended a meeting addressed by Meretz leader Yossi Beilin in his home town of Seattle reports: "But one thing turned me off big time that night. He was asked by Jeri Rice, a prominent leader of the local Jewish peace community and major funder of Israeli Peace Forum what he could tell us about the Syria attack. Now, I understand as an MK he's privy to information that we may not be. But his answer nevertheless deeply disappointed. He said he wasn't going to condemn the attack and had information that prevented him from doing so. He added that as long as the attack did not cause any humanitarian hardship he had no problem with it. "The upshot of his reply was that he knew something we didn't which allowed him to feel perfectly comfortable with what the IAF had done."

Whether or not Beilin actually knew something that the rest of the audience didn´t is a moot point. What we know for sure is that the relevant Knesset committee hasn´t been told. In fact the leader of Meretz Knesset faction, Zahava Gal-On, wrote to the Attorney-General, Meni Mazuz demanding that the PM reports to the relevant Knesset committee. Gal-On and her supporters were furious with Beilin for publicly rebuking her move. Arik Bender reported in Ma´ariv that they pointed out that paragraph 40 of foundation of government law requires the Prime Minister to report on military operation to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, A fortnight was time enough argued Gal-on.

Of course, even if Olmert´s does not tell the Knesset anything the fact remains that without any proof of provocation this remains an aggressive violation of another country´s air space. Larry Derfner touched on the subject in a Jerusalem Post column (reproduced in Josh Landis Blog):

"For once, Israelis seem to believe that Syria is telling the truth - that Israeli jets invaded Syria's airspace last Thursday... "The reason Israelis believe the Syrian story is because if it wasn't true, Israel would deny it. Why would Israel deny it? Because countries aren't supposed to fly their jets into another country's airspace without permission. It's considered an invasion. An act of aggression. It gives the invaded country a causus belli - a justification to strike back.

"In short, it's wrong. It's the sort of thing that starts wars, and countries are supposed to try to avoid wars, not start them. "So Israeli leaders have nothing to say about the Syrian reports. This is the diplomatic equivalent of a wink. Everyone understands. "What's hard to understand, though, is how the Israeli media can be so docile, so obedient, in the face of such a reckless Israeli act. I was watching Channel 2 Thursday night, and I couldn't believe what I was hearing, or rather not hearing.

"None of the journalists, who clearly assumed that this incident had really taken place, thought it worth mentioning that Israel had just risked starting a war with Syria. None of them challenged Israeli officials on the wisdom of this. All they talked about was what Syria might do now, whether Syria would go to war. That Israel had just provoked Syria, had just escalated the conflict, was the elephant in the newsroom that they pretended not to see."

The last word, however, should go to Stratfor: "The mystery is deep and we are baffled, but it does not strike us as trivial. Something important happened."


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