Powered by WebAds

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Was the Syrian target nuclear?

On schedule, the Sunday Times of London weighs in today claiming that the Syrian target destroyed by Israel ten days ago, which is still the lead item in the news here today, was 'nuclear material.'
The Israeli government was not saying. “The security sources and IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] soldiers are demonstrating unusual courage,” said Ehud Olmert, the prime minister. “We naturally cannot always show the public our cards.”

The Syrians were also keeping mum. “I cannot reveal the details,” said Farouk al-Sharaa, the vice-president. “All I can say is the military and political echelon is looking into a series of responses as we speak. Results are forthcoming.” The official story that the target comprised weapons destined for Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’ite group, appeared to be crumbling in the face of widespread scepticism.

Andrew Semmel, a senior US State Department official, said Syria might have obtained nuclear equipment from “secret suppliers”, and added that there were a “number of foreign technicians” in the country.

Asked if they could be North Korean, he replied: “There are North Korean people there. There’s no question about that.” He said a network run by AQ Khan, the disgraced creator of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, could be involved.
Let's just pause here for a minute. For what it's worth (admittedly not much) Josh Landis points out at Syria Comment that in 2004 'nuclear watchdog' Mohamed El-Baradei of the IAEA denied any connection between Syria and AQ Khan.

But let's go back to the Times of London piece, because it gets into the question of why the Syrians might want nuclear weapons in the first place.
But why would nuclear material be in Syria? Known to have chemical weapons, was it seeking to bolster its arsenal with something even more deadly?

Alternatively, could it be hiding equipment for North Korea, enabling Kim Jong-il to pretend to be giving up his nuclear programme in exchange for economic aid? Or was the material bound for Iran, as some authorities in America suggest?

According to Israeli sources, preparations for the attack had been going on since late spring, when Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad, presented Olmert with evidence that Syria was seeking to buy a nuclear device from North Korea.

The Israeli spy chief apparently feared such a device could eventually be installed on North-Korean-made Scud-C missiles.

“This was supposed to be a devastating Syrian surprise for Israel,” said an Israeli source. “We’ve known for a long time that Syria has deadly chemical warheads on its Scuds, but Israel can’t live with a nuclear warhead.”
A Scud-C carrying a nuclear payload? Maybe a flying dirty bomb, but a real nuclear bomb? That sounds like something out of science fiction. I'm not an atomic scientist, but it seems to me that the controlled conditions under which a nuclear device would have to be held could not be attained on something as primitive as a Scud-C missile. In fact, I'm not even sure a Scud-C could hold a 'dirty bomb.'

Allow me to clarify what a 'dirty bomb' is:
A “dirty bomb” is one type of a “radiological dispersal device” (RDD) that combines a conventional explosive, such as dynamite, with radioactive material. The terms dirty bomb and RDD are often used interchangeably in the media. Most RDDs would not release enough radiation to kill people or cause severe illness - the conventional explosive itself would be more harmful to individuals than the radioactive material. However, depending on the scenario, an RDD explosion could create fear and panic, contaminate property, and require potentially costly cleanup. Making prompt, accurate information available to the public could prevent the panic sought by terrorists.

A dirty bomb is in no way similar to a nuclear weapon or nuclear bomb. A nuclear bomb creates an explosion that is millions of times more powerful than that of a dirty bomb. The cloud of radiation from a nuclear bomb could spread tens to hundreds of square miles, whereas a dirty bomb’s radiation could be dispersed within a few blocks or miles of the explosion. A dirty bomb is not a “Weapon of Mass Destruction” but a “Weapon of Mass Disruption,” where contamination and anxiety are the terrorists’ major objectives.
But that's not a nuclear bomb. The simplest nuclear bomb is probably a gun-controlled, fission device, which is what was used at Hiroshima. Read this description and tell me if this is something that can be done using a Scud C. In fact, the Scud is a poor platform for nuclear weapons as indicated by the following:
Here is a pertinent para from Karp about the Scud and its variations '... At the maximum ranges of Scud technology, nuclear weapons cease to compensate efficiently for missile's low accuracy (Iraqi Al Hussein and North Korean Scud - C have a CEP of about 2 Km) ... Using the missile like the Iraqi Al-Abbas or North Korean No Dong I with a CEP of 3 Km at a range of 900 Km, and armed with a 20-Kt nuclear weapon, the chance of destroying even an unprotected target is less than 27 per cent. Destruction of a city centre or an unsheltered military target under these conditions would require at least five (5) missiles despite their nuclear armament.' For more hardened targets even more than a dozen Scuds are needed - which indeed is not cost effective. The use of aircraft - and if the conventional gun batteries could be used is perhaps the real answer.
But I will concede that if the Syrians could even arm a Scud-C with nuclear material, that would have a nuisance effect if nothing else. In fact, by using an inaccurate Scud-C to launch nuclear material, they would risk hitting their own citizens or Arab citizens in Israel (Hezbullah did the latter several times last summer). Maybe they'd want it for the nuisance value anyway. Let's go on with the Times article:
The target was identified as a northern Syrian facility that purported to be an agricultural research centre on the Euphrates river. Israel had been monitoring it for some time, concerned that it was being used to extract uranium from phosphates.

According to an Israeli air force source, the Israeli satellite Ofek 7, launched in June, was diverted from Iran to Syria. It sent out high-quality images of a northeastern area every 90 minutes, making it easy for air force specialists to spot the facility.

Early in the summer Ehud Barak, the defence minister, had given the order to double Israeli forces on its Golan Heights border with Syria in anticipation of possible retaliation by Damascus in the event of air strikes.

Sergei Kirpichenko, the Russian ambassador to Syria, warned President Bashar al-Assad last month that Israel was planning an attack, but suggested the target was the Golan Heights. [And now we know why Israel accused Russia of creating tensions between Israel and Syria. CiJ]

Israeli military intelligence sources claim Syrian special forces moved towards the Israeli outpost of Mount Hermon on the Golan Heights. Tension rose, but nobody knew why.

At this point, Barak feared events could spiral out of control. The decision was taken to reduce the number of Israeli troops on the Golan Heights and tell Damascus the tension was over. Syria relaxed its guard shortly before the Israeli Defence Forces struck.

Only three Israeli cabinet ministers are said to have been in the know � Olmert, Barak and Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister. America was also consulted. According to Israeli sources, American air force codes were given to the Israeli air force attaché in Washington to ensure Israel’s F15Is would not mistakenly attack their US counterparts. [That's certainly plausible. CiJ]

Once the mission was under way, Israel imposed draconian military censorship and no news of the operation emerged until Syria complained that Israeli aircraft had violated its airspace. Syria claimed its air defences had engaged the planes, forcing them to drop fuel tanks to lighten their loads as they fled.

But intelligence sources suggested it was a highly successful Israeli raid on nuclear material supplied by North Korea.
It's clear that there was a raid and that the target was some sort of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) facility. I'm still not convinced the facility necessarily housed nuclear weapons. But this final piece is heart-warming:
As a bonus, the Israelis proved they could penetrate the Syrian air defence system, which is stronger than the one protecting Iranian nuclear sites.

This weekend President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran sent Ali Akbar Mehrabian, his nephew, to Syria to assess the damage. The new “axis of evil” may have lost one of its spokes.
By the way, Israel Radio just reported that North Korea is denying that it helped Syria to build a nuclear facility.


Post a Comment

<< Home