Certainly devotees of the “nothing to see here” school of purported North Korea—Syrian nuclear cooperation, of which I am a member, are being tested by the stream of reports and leaks coming out of Israel and Washington concerning the notorious September 6 bombing raid on Syria.
On September 22, The Sunday Times weighed in with a categorical assertion concerning the nuclear character of the Syrian facility, including the explosive allegation that Israeli commandos had seized nuclear material from the facility prior to the raid.
Washington…demanded clear evidence of nuclear-related activities before giving the operation its blessing. The task of the commandos was to provide it.
Today the site near Dayr az-Zawr lies in ruins after it was pounded by Israeli F15Is on September 6. Before the Israelis issued the order to strike, the commandos had secretly seized samples of nuclear material and taken them back into Israel for examination by scientists, the sources say. A laboratory confirmed that the unspecified material was North Korean in origin. America approved an attack.
That, to me, is one of the more questionable pieces of reportage about the raid.
Seems to me that nuclear material—if we are actually talking about “significant quantities of weapons-grade nuclear material” and not a lab sample or a nuclear gauge—is not left lying around high-security Syrian atomic bomb facilities for Israeli commandos to pick up, even if they are disguised in Syrian army uniforms.
As to whether North Korean nuclear material possesses a unique fingerprint distinguishable by Israeli intelligence, I’ll defer to the experts.
Direct evidence that North Koreans died during the raid is pretty thin:
The growing assumption that North Korea suffered direct casualties in the raid appears to be based largely on the regime’s unusually strident propaganda on an issue far from home. But there were also indications of conversations between Chinese and North Korean officials and intelligence reports reaching Asian governments that supported the same conclusion, diplomats said.
On closer examination, the other assertions of fact intended to give an aura of insider accuracy to the report—concerning spectacular WMD-related accidents involving Syrians and/or North Koreans—look more like the result of a dossier dump meant to enhance the credibility of a report still lacking first-hand corroboration:
Jane’s Defence Weekly reported last week that dozens of Iranian engineers and Syrians were killed in July attempting to load a chemical warhead containing mustard gas onto a Scud missile. The Scuds and warheads are of North Korean design and possibly manufacture, and there are recent reports that North Koreans were helping the Syrians to attach airburst chemical weapons to warheads.
The outlines of a long-term arms relationship between the North Koreans and the Syrians are now being reexamined by intelligence experts in several capitals. Diplomats in Pyongyang have said they believe reports that about a dozen Syrian technicians were killed in a massive explosion and railway crash in North Korea on April 22, 2004.
Teams of military personnel wearing protective suits were seen removing debris from the section of the train in which the Syrians were travelling, according to a report quoting military sources that appeared in a Japanese newspaper. Their bodies were flown home by a Syrian military cargo plane that was spotted shortly after the explosion at Pyongyang airport.
Other leaked assertions in the western media, by adding detail, undercut the story instead of bolstering it.
Like that freighter that arrived at a Syrian port three days before the raid, maybe carrying some nuclear stuff as the Washington Post’s sources speculated .
Well, if it arrived three days before the raid, not much time for months of anxious back and forth between Tel Aviv and Washington, and a commando raid.
Which gives me the idea that the various sources for the raid are throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.
Anyway, the net is spread to North Korea—and China:
China abruptly postponed a session of the nuclear disarmament talks last week because it feared America might confront the North Koreans over their weapons deals with Syria, according to sources close to the Chinese foreign ministry. Negotiations have been rescheduled for this Thursday in Beijing after assurances were given that all sides wished them to be “constructive”.
Christopher Hill, the US State Department negotiator, is said to have persuaded the White House that the talks offered a realistic chance to accomplish a peace treaty formally ending the 1950-1953 Korean war, in which more than 50,000 Americans died. A peace deal of that magnitude would be a coup for Bush – but only if the North Koreans genuinely abandon their nuclear programmes.
From my perspective, the Chinese might ask for a postponement, whether or not they think the report is true, to make sure the U.S. wasn’t planning to drop a Boltonian bomb on the talks and terminally disrupt them.
Once you subtract the immaterial and unconfirmed elements from the story, we’re basically looking at a commercial for the Sayeret Matkal commandos and Israel’s most recent military savior, Ehud Barak:
The operation was personally directed by Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, who is said to have been largely preoccupied with it since taking up his post on June 18.
It was the ideal mission for Barak, Israel’s most decorated soldier and legendary former commander of the Sayeret Matkal, which shares the motto “Who Dares Wins” with Britain’s SAS and specialises in intelligence-gathering deep behind enemy lines.
Barak’s return to government after making a fortune in private business was critical to the Israeli operation. Military experts believe it could not have taken place under Amir Peretz, the defence minister who was forced from the post after last year’s ill-fated war in Lebanon. “Barak gave Olmert the confidence needed for such a dangerous operation,” said one insider.
If I was going to come up with a plausible contrarian scenario for this whole enigma, I would say:
There are North Koreans in Syria and possibly a bunch of them got killed when Israel bombed a facility where they were working.
The facility could have been some Syrian nuclear facility or a hidey-hole for undeclared North Korean nuclear equipment (unlikely); a factory assembling illegally imported North Korean SCUDs (maybe); or a facility where the Norks were providing unsavory but possibly legal assistance to the Syrians in upgrading their home-made SCUDs (more likely).
The Israelis flatten it to show the world that the IDF is back, baby! after the Lebanon humiliation, and that any attempt by the Syrian government to alleviate its military difficulties with foreign assistance will be met with overwhelming force.
The Bush administration backs the idea in order to teach the Syrians and the North Koreans a lesson.
The raid is scheduled to occur after the North Koreans are hooked on the Six Party Agreement and unlikely to withdraw in outrage even though some of their technicians got blown to smithereens.
The nuclear allegations are chaff, sending a message to the North Koreans that the U.S. and Israel can cook up a story of North Korean nuclear misbehavior on demand if Kim Jung Il gets too uppity.
This last point may appear too cynical and Machiavellian, but I think it’s difficult to underestimate the Bush administration’s single-minded pursuit of leverage and its fundamental discomfort with being simply one of equals in the Six-Party process.
What better way to regain the whip hand in the Six-Party process than to threaten Russia and China with the collapse of the Six Party talks with an out-of-left-field (or Syria) allegation of North Korean malfeasance if things don’t go our way?
In any case, the leak-based reporting is becoming too detailed and categorical to ignore.
And that’s dangerous.
It’s not credible that the U.S. government would sit on a genuine case of North Korean nuclear trafficking with Syria and let the story dribble out through anonymous sources just to keep the Six Party talks lurching along and give Chris Hill something to do.
Maybe there’s a hardliner plan to leak their story in so much detail that Washington and Tel Aviv’s credibility are put on the line, and the Bush administration will see no alternative except to succumb to the temptation to give this story some official legs—spurious or otherwise.
Maybe the remarkable official silence on the attack reflects a struggle in Washington as to whether to move on—or exploit the circumstances and ambiguity surrounding the raid in the most inflammatory way possible.
If the North Korean nuke meme spreads to the U.S. media from the alarmist U.K. press, I guess we’ll have our answer.
Certainly, hardliners are feeding the anticipation that other shoes will drop.
According to Netanyahu’s top aide:
Mossad veteran Uzi Arad, told NEWSWEEK: “I do know what happened, and when it comes out it will stun everyone.”
Well, that’s enough Fisking for now.
We’ll all have to wait and see.