Israel, Syria, and Iran

Two weeks after an Israeli airstrike against something or other in Syria, Israeli President Shimon Peres suddenly feels all warm and fuzzy toward the Syrians. Here's Ha'Aretz
"I do believe the nervousness in the relationship between Syria and ourselves is over," Peres told foreign journalists. "Why go back to rumors and speculation when we say clearly we are ready to negotiate directly with the Syrians for peace."

... Meanwhile, another indication that tensions with Syria have quieted somewhat is the fact that the Israel Defense Forces have announced that a round of officer appointments, suspended due to the rise in tensions, would resume. The appointments were halted about a month before the September 6 incident, due to fears of a possible war with Syria during the summer.

Commentary. As you know, I'm not any kind of Middle East expert, so what follows here is my strictly amateur analysis. Now we all know that there's been a lot of talk in the last couple of years about a Syrian/Iranian strategic alliance, which would make sense, because neither of those countries has very many friends left in the Middle East. Consequently, there's been speculation on the US/Israeli side about the desirability of trying to weaken the alliance by making peace overtures to Syria in order to woo it away from the Iranian orbit.

The debate within Israel has been between the camp that says "Iran or no Iran, Syria is our enemy - we'd be nuts to negotiate with them"; and the side that says "One thing at a time - Iran is Public Enemy Number One, and we need to keep them from establishing a beachhead on our borders."

So what has just happened is that Israel has taken Syria to the woodshed and whipped it like a naughty schoolboy. Then, to add insult to injury, they've publicly humiliated the Assad regime by saying, "... Oh, you were saying something about peace talks? Let's talk peace."

I think there's a message for everybody here:

For Syria: You are our bitches.

For Iran: Your so-called allies in Syria are useless to you. We can strike any point in Syria at any time. You are alone.

For the Israelis: This is what we mean when we talk about negotiating from a position of strength. We know you think your government are a bunch of wimps, but we do know what we're doing. When we say "let's negotiate with the Syrians", we're not talking about giving away the farm - so don't take us for fools. Our focus must be on prying Syria away from Iran, and that's what we're doing.

And it might be working. Here's Stratfor:

Most intriguing are the reports we have received from Lebanon claiming that a serious division has opened up in the leadership of Hezbollah over the prospect of Syria working out a peace agreement with Israel. To even hear of a division within Hezbollah over the subject is startling, let alone the fact that the group is taking the possibility of a peace treaty seriously.

Israel periodically raises the possibility of a peace settlement with Syria, usually not all that sincerely, so Peres' comment is not completely strange. The report on Hezbollah taking this seriously is more interesting, but remember that rumors always flow in Lebanon, and this one may not be true -- or Hezbollah is simply getting itself bent out of shape.

The report goes on to speculate on the possible role of Turkey, raising the possibility that something was entering Syria from Turkey "that the Israelis didn't want arriving" and noting that the Turkish government is interested in seeing Syria and Israel negotiate.

Here's a roundup of earlier analysis:

Stratfor - September 17, 2007:

This weekend, the mystery of the Israeli aircraft over northern Syria became more important and even less clear than it was before. 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 defenses to retreat from Syrian airspace. ...

Then, during a meeting of Syrian and Turkish leaders, the Turkish government reported that two auxiliary fuel tanks from Israeli planes had been found in Turkish territory, close to the Syrian frontier. That would indicate that the Israelis were operating very close to the Turkish border, had been detected by the Syrians, released their fuel tanks and took off. That story left two unsolved mysteries: First, what were the Israelis looking for that close to the Turkish border -- or more precisely, right on the Turkish border? And second, why were the Turks so touchy about some drop tanks that were, after all, left behind by Israel, a country with which Turkey has close military relations? And of course, that takes us back to why the Israelis would be monitoring events on the Turkish-Syrian border themselves instead of just asking the Turks.

Then, this weekend, Washington started leaking, with the media carrying a series of utterly contradictory explanations from unnamed American sources. The Washington Post ran a report by an American "expert on the Middle East" (pedigree unclear, but obviously impressive enough to be used by the Washington Post). The Post report said the target was a Syrian facility officially labeled by Syria as an "agricultural research center." The attack was linked with the arrival of a ship in a Syrian port carrying goods from North Korea labeled as "cement." According to the Post's expert, it wasn't clear what the ship was actually carrying, but the consensus in Israel was that it was delivering nuclear equipment. Meanwhile, an unnamed source in The New York Times said the mission was indeed a reconnaissance flight tracking North Korean nuclear equipment. So, two of the major U.S. newspapers have both had similar leaks. This is clearly the official unofficial position of the U.S. government.

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. ...

Another leak, provided by Israel to the London Times, hinted that there were chemical weapons at the site, and that the attack (note that this leak claimed there was an attack and not simply a reconnaissance flight) helped save Israel from an "unpleasant surprise." A sub-leak from the Israelis was that the target destroyed in the raid was a store of chemical weapons. So the Americans are talking about North Korean nuclear technology while the Israelis are talking about chemical weapons. Amos Yadlin, head of Israeli military intelligence, said that he would not discuss the matter, then went on to discuss it by saying that Israel now has the deterrent capability against Hezbollah that it didn't have in 2006. Perhaps the chemical weapons were to be shipped to Hezbollah?

The least credible story of the bunch, which came from the British paper the Observer, was that the raid might have been a dry run for an attack on Iran. That is of course possible, but we are having trouble understanding how flying to the Turkish-Syrian border would constitute a dry run for anything beyond flying to the Turkish-Syrian border.

We do not mean to be flip. We think that this raid or reconnaissance flight, or whatever it was, was important. It's importance was less about U.S.-Syrian relations than about Syrian-Turkish relations. ...

Since when do the Syrians trust the Turks enough to do anything important along the border? Since when do the Israelis have to do reconnaissance flights along the border? The Turks patrol that area pretty intensely. We had thought there was a strong intelligence-sharing program. Perhaps it's no longer a trusted channel? Of course, the Turks somehow might have been complicit in this.

The mystery is deep and we are baffled, but it does not strike us as trivial. Something important happened Sept. 6.

David Horovitz at the Jerusalem Post - September 16, 2007:
Amid reports in the American media that the alleged Israeli raid into Syria 10 days ago targeted a North Korean-Syrian nuclear facility, John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN, told The Jerusalem Post over the weekend that "simple logic" suggested North Korea and Iran could have outsourced nuclear development "to a country that is not under suspicion" - namely Syria. Tellingly, he added: "Why would North Korea protest an Israeli strike on Syria?"

Bolton suggested that Syria, which he said has long sought a range of weapons of mass destruction, might have agreed to provide "facilities for uranium enrichment" on its territory for two allied countries which are being closely watched for nuclear development.

Bolton spoke as American newspapers reported that the alleged IAF raid, over which Israel has maintained official silence, was aimed at a facility in northern Syria close to the Turkish border, and that the strike may have been linked to the recent arrival of a shipment from North Korea, labeled as cement, but believed by Israel to contain nuclear equipment.

According to The Washington Post, Israel had been keeping a watchful eye on the facility, which is officially characterized by the Syrians as an agricultural research center. The offending shipment arrived at the Syrian port of Tartus on September 3, three days before the reported IAF raid.

The IAF strike took place "under such strict operational security that the pilots flying air cover for the attack aircraft did not know details of the mission," The Washington Post said Saturday, quoting a top US expert who it said had interviewed Israeli participants. "The pilots who conducted the attack were briefed only after they were in the air," the paper quoted him as saying.

The Times - September 16, 2007:
IT was just after midnight when the 69th Squadron of Israeli F15Is crossed the Syrian coast-line. On the ground, Syria’s formidable air defences went dead. An audacious raid on a Syrian target 50 miles from the Iraqi border was under way.

At a rendezvous point on the ground, a Shaldag air force commando team was waiting to direct their laser beams at the target for the approaching jets. The team had arrived a day earlier, taking up position near a large underground depot. Soon the bunkers were in flames. ...

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.

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.”

Strategy Page - September 18, 2007:
September 18, 2007: Israel has still not admitted what it's F-15s were bombing in northern Syria on September 6th. Syria complained bitterly, the media speculated and the government said nothing. This caused a spike in popularity polls for Israeli officials, which may have been the main objective of the operation. There are plenty of targets in Syria, like shipments of weapons for Hizbollah, or new Russian anti-aircraft missile systems. Nuclear weapons were also mentioned. But it's all speculation, and all that Israeli officials will talk about is the Israeli ability to hit their enemies anywhere, at any time.

UPDATE: Israel Matzav - citing, of all people, Josh Landis - believes the evidence favors a chemical rather than a nuclear target. Includes maps.

In from the Cold - September 17, 2007:
Not surprisingly, the raid was cloaked in secrecy and deception--hallmarks of past Israeli military operations. Only three members of the Israeli cabinet knew about the raid in advance --Prime Minister Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister. To deceive the Syrians, Mr. Olmert reduced Israel's troop presence along the Golan Heights in the days before the attacks, suggesting an easing of tensions between the two countries.

Obviously, the Israeli strategy worked; the operation caught Damascus by surprise (there was apparently little reaction from Syria's air defense system); the Israelis inflicted serious damage on the target, and both the F-15I crews and the commandos escaped unscathed. Syria has threatened retaliation, but its options are limited. The odds of Syrian aircraft penetrating Israeli airspace are slim, and a missile strike would invite a devastating response, as would an attack across the Golan Heights.

Still, the Times article leaves a number of questions unanswered. We'll begin with the issue of Israel successfully penetrating Syria's air defense system. While it's happened before, the Syrian air defense network was supposedly re-organized after an embarrassing 2003 Israeli strike against a Palestinian terrorist camp near Damascus. During that raid, the Israelis reportedly exploited confusion over geographic responsibilities within the Syrian defense system. The most recent mission--which involved a much deeper penetration into Syrian territory--suggests that (a) Bashir Assad's air defense network hasn't improved, or (b) the Israelis are using more advanced measures to target the system, and render it impotent.

Then, there's the matter of that commando team. If the Times is correct, those personnel arrived in the target area a day ahead of the fighters, inserted (we'll assume) by Israeli Sea Stallion helicopters. As we've noted before, the successful infiltration of a commando team by helicopter, deep into Syrian territory, is an impressive operational feat, indeed. But getting the commandos (and their choppers) all the way across Syria (and back again), undetected, represents a monumental challenge, even for a state-of-the-art military like the IDF.

That raises another interesting question: where did the commandos and their choppers come from? The target also lies relatively close to Syria's northern border with Turkey, which just happens to have close military ties with Israel. It would be far easier for those Sea Stallions to infiltrate from an airfield or forward operating base in Turkey, rather than making the long trip across Syria. So far, little has been said about a possible Turkish "role" in the enterprise, despite the fact that the IDF has long trained in that country, and members of Turkey's armed forces routinely utilize Israeli military facilities.

There's also the possibility that the commando team staged from a location in Iraq, as suggested by the Times:

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.

But that's something of a red herring. The "codes" refer to signal transmitted by the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) transponders carried by all combat aircraft. But in a combat environment, attacking aircraft shut off their IFF before entering hostile airspace. Israeli jets attacking that Syrian "agricultural" complex (presumably) weren't transmitting an IFF "squawk." Moreover, the target is apparently far enough from the border that an accidental "intrusion" into Iraqi airspace--and targeting by U.S. jets--was a remote possibility, at best. And, the Israelis knew that our fighters wouldn't respond to an incident that was clearly within Syrian territory, and posed no threat to our own forces.

So why did the Israelis have our IFF codes? There are several possibilities. First, there's the slimmest of chances that the commando force staged from one of Saddam's old airfields in western Iraq. However, the chances of that happening are virtually non-existent; in today's Middle East environment, the U.S. can't afford to provide direct support to an Israeli strike on a Muslim nation.

On the other hand, there a better chance that the U.S. would allow a crippled Israeli aircraft to land at an airfield in western Iraq that is under our control. Al Asad Airfield, located 180 miles west of Baghdad would be the most likely candidate for a divert base; obviously, an emergency landing at Al Asad or any other U.S.-controlled airfield would be facilitated by transmitting the right IFF squawk, and preventing intercept by our fighters. There's also the possibility that Israel has made "other arrangements" within Iraq, and needed the IFF codes to simply allow transit through U.S.-protected airspace.

While the aircraft used on the Syrian raid--the F-15I--is no surprise, the inclusion of a ground team (or, at least their stated purpose) is a bit curious. As we noted last week, Israel's most advanced jet fighters are trained (and equipped) for employment of JDAM, which relies on satellite guidance. In many respects, that weapon would be a better choice for targeting the Syrian storage bunkers, since the guidance kit can be attached to virtually any type of conventional bomb (including penetrators), eliminating the need for ground designation. The presence of that commando team suggests that Israel was concerned about potential GPS jamming, or (more likely) the commando were dispatched to retrieve nuclear material from the site--a claim repeated in the Times' article.

Via Kesher Talk, 4 Mile Creek:
It's King Khalid Military City, most commonly referred to as KKMC. It's not too easy to see (click on picture to enlarge), but there is a nice airfield off to the upper right. Built by Vinnell Corp, and designed to land, re-arm and refuel F-15s. KKMC is in northern Saudi Arabia, and was designed to help protect the northern Saudi border from Iraq incursions. I've been there occasionally on a training missions. It's in the middle of friggin' nowhere, and the airfield is to the southwest of friggin' nowhere (the picture is inverted, north is to the bottom of the picture, add'l picture with a little more detail here).

If the Israelis were to disguise their airplanes, and fly in there sometime around 2000 hrs, then capture the airfield personnel, it would be several hours before anyone knew something was going on. Even with the Royal Saudi Land Forces barracks just down the road in the main part of KKMC, it would be several hours after that before the Royal Saudi forces could mount an attack. With only one easily defended road from KKMC to KKMC airfield, it wouldn't be that hard for the Israelis to beat off an attack. It would then be at least six or seven hours (and more likely 24 hours) after that before any sort of Saudi reserve ground force could be mustered from outside of KKMC and brought to bear. As with the airfield, there is only one road into KKMC proper (it's the road visible coming into KKMC from the left), and it wouldn't be too tough for a light battalion to control that high-speed avenue of approach for at least another several hours. All total, the Israelis would have anywhere from 12 to 24 hours to use a well stocked, well built airfield from which their F-15s would be able to be refueled, re-armed and launched to strike nearly anywhere in Iran. Israeli F-16s could fly CAPs over the airfield to deter any Royal Saudi Air Force response coming up from PSAB, and even if the RSAF did attack, their training is mostly in air-to-air combat, not air-to-dirt bombing in support of a ground attack. Add in a few SHORAD sites around the airfield, and the RSAF would likely not affect much of the fighting on the ground.

After using it for maybe a day, the Israelis could load up and quickly cross into Iraqi airspace and hotfoot it home at low level.