A dry run for Iran?
The London Sunday Observer (al-Guardian's Sunday edition) claims today that the alleged
Israeli raid on Syria ten days ago was a dry run for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities
. If that's true, it's good news, because, as I have already noted, the Syrians actually had better air defenses
than the Iranians have.
Amid the confusion there were troubling details that chimed uncomfortably with the known facts. Two detachable tanks from an Israeli fighter were found just over the Turkish border. According to Turkish military sources, they belonged to a Raam F15I - the newest generation of Israeli long-range bomber, which has a combat range of over 2,000km when equipped with the drop tanks. This would enable them to reach targets in Iran, leading to speculation that it was an 'operation rehearsal' for a raid on Tehran's nuclear facilities.
Finally, however, at the week's end, the first few tangible details were beginning to emerge about Operation Orchard from a source involved in the Israeli operation.
They were sketchy, but one thing was absolutely clear. Far from being a minor incursion, the Israeli overflight of Syrian airspace through its ally, Turkey, was a far more major affair involving as many as eight aircraft, including Israel's most ultra-modern F-15s and F-16s equipped with Maverick missiles and 500lb bombs. Flying among the Israeli fighters at great height, The Observer can reveal, was an ELINT - an electronic intelligence gathering aircraft.
The Observer goes on to imply that the Bush administration had coordinated the Israeli attack(!)and to blame the neo-cons of the Bush administration (none of whom are in the White House anymore) for pushing the 'line' that Syria, North Korea and Iran are trying to team up to outfit Hezbullah with nuclear weapons! But it is hard to disagree with this part of the story:
There has also been deep scepticism about the claims from other officials and former officials familiar with both Syria and North Korea. They have pointed out that an almost bankrupt Syria has neither the economic nor the industrial base to support the kind of nuclear programme described, adding that Syria has long rejected going down the nuclear route.
Others have pointed out that North Korea and Syria in any case have also had a long history of close links - making meaningless the claim that the North Koreans are in Syria.
The scepticism was reflected by Bruce Reidel, a former intelligence official at the Brookings Institution's Saban Centre, quoted in the Post. 'It was a substantial Israeli operation, but I can't get a good fix on whether the target was a nuclear thing,' adding that there was 'a great deal of scepticism that there's any nuclear angle here' and instead the facility could have been related to chemical or biological weapons.
The opaqueness surrounding the nature of what may have been hit in Operation Orchard has been compounded by claims that US knowledge over the alleged 'agricultural site' has come not from its own intelligence and satellite imaging, but from material supplied to Washington from Tel Aviv over the last six months, material that has been restricted to just a few senior officials under the instructions of national security adviser Stephen Hadley, leaving many in the intelligence community uncertain of its veracity.
Whatever the truth of the allegations against Syria - and Israel has a long history of employing complex deceptions in its operations - the message being delivered from Tel Aviv is clear: if Syria's ally, Iran, comes close to acquiring a nuclear weapon, and the world fails to prevent it, either through diplomatic or military means, then Israel will stop it on its own.
So Operation Orchard can be seen as a dry run, a raid using the same heavily modified long-range aircraft, procured specifically from the US with Iran's nuclear sites in mind. It reminds both Iran and Syria of the supremacy of its aircraft and appears to be designed to deter Syria from getting involved in the event of a raid on Iran - a reminder, if it were required, that if Israel's ground forces were humiliated in the second Lebanese war its airforce remains potent, powerful and unchallenged.
While the Observer goes on to find it troubling that an attack on Iran may be in the offing, I find it reassuring. Even the weak Olmert-Barak-Livni government realizes that it cannot let Iran go nuclear under any circumstances.