Summer 2008, pp. 57-62
On the morning of September 6, 2007, Israel Air Force (IAF) planes penetrated deep into Syrian airspace and attacked a nuclear facility near the town of Dayr al-Zur in the northeastern part of the country. In an almost unprecedented fashion, the Israeli government and military refused to confirm the involvement of Israeli aircraft, the target, or the raid’s success, with the first report of the operation coming from Damascus. The lack of disclosure from Israel has been in inverse proportion to the raid’s importance, which effectively called Bashar al-Assad’s bluff. Since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, Assad had created a sense of fear that threatened to limit the Israeli military’s options regarding Syria. After a decades-long status quo between Damascus and Jerusalem, Israeli leaders found themselves on the defensive. The strike on this suspect nuclear facility restored the status quo ante, and by doing so, Israeli leaders revealed Bashar’s strategic weakness. While diplomats praised Bashar’s restraint and maturity, his inaction undercut the image he sought to project. Despite his bellicose rhetoric, Assad feared a confrontation with Israel and was not prepared to pay the price of a conflict. Nevertheless, Damascus’s covert flirtation with nuclear technology suggests Assad has not moved beyond rashness and that his judgement remains poor.
Syria: Calling for Peace, Preparing for War On August 15, 2006, the day after a cease-fire ended fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, Assad claimed victory for himself and Syria. The Israeli military had failed to achieve Jerusalem’s stated aims: a return of the Israeli soldiers seized by Hezbollah and an end to Hezbollah’s ability to fire rockets into northern Israel. While the Syrian military had not participated directly in the fighting, Damascus did not conceal its support for Hezbollah. In a speech before the Fourth Annual Conference of the Syrian Journalists Union in Damascus, Bashar declared that he viewed the results of the battles as an important, and even historic, victory of the Hezbollah organization:
When we declare that we have chosen the path of peace and that peace is for us a strategic choice, this does not mean that we are renouncing all the other options. On the contrary, the more distant peace becomes, the more there is a need to seek other paths and solutions with the aim of regaining what is rightfully ours. Resistance in all its various forms is the alternative for regaining our rights.
With a tone more forceful than in years past, Assad gave Israel the option of peace or confrontation: Either Israel could withdraw from the Golan Heights to the shores of the Sea of Galilee or risk a war of attrition on the Golan Heights similar to what Israel experienced with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
Assad’s strident declarations raised questions about what operative conclusions he had drawn. His statements suggested that he believed that the “Israeli demon” was not so terrible. Hezbollah’s missiles deterred Israel for years and, even when Israel did engage Hezbollah, they forced Israel to curtail the conflict without achieving Jerusalem’s declared goals. Assad might conclude that Syrian missiles, more advanced than Hezbollah’s arsenal, could achieve the same effect should the Syrian regime sponsor a Hezbollah-like campaign on the Golan Heights. Syrian officials speaking to Western diplomats in Damascus even hinted that the possibility of all-out warfare might not restrain Bashar any longer. While Hezbollah rained rockets on Haifa, Damascus possessed an arsenal including Scud-C and Scud-D missiles with respective ranges of 250 and 375 miles, capable of striking the entirety of Israel.
Assad’s threats, even if coupled with declarations of readiness to resume peace negotiations, received broad public exposure in the Syrian media. Senior Syrian officials amplified them in subsequent interviews, and columnists and political commentators repeated them in state newspapers, on the radio, and on television.
An August 16, 2006 editorial in the state-run Ath-Thawra daily declared that “just as Hezbollah fought against Israel, so will the Syrian people fight on the Hermon and at Mas’ada and Majdal Shams.” On September 4, 2006, Radio Damascus broadcast a political commentary in which it was declared that “the resistance option is available if the enemy refuses to return the land of the Golan.” The following month, Sulayman Haddad, a member of the Syrian People’s Assembly, declared that “Israel understands only the language of resistance, and therefore it must understand that the bitter experience it suffered with the Lebanese resistance is liable to be repeated on the Golan Heights front if Israel continues its occupation of the Golan. It must understand,” he added, “that we will do this, not because we love war, but because Israel is pushing us to the wall.” Then, on December 7, 2006, Syrian deputy foreign minister Faysal al-Miqdad declared in a speech to students at the University of Aleppo that “it must be understood that the patience of the Syrian people is running out” with regard to Israeli possession of the Golan.
Syrian officials transmitted the same message to Arab and foreign journalists in Damascus. Syrian vice president Faruq al-Shar’a told the BBC, “Syria will do everything in its power to return the Golan Heights to its hands although it prefers to do this by means of negotiations for peace.” On July 13, 2007, the Qatari newspaper Al-Watan reported, “Syria has learned the lesson of the Lebanon war, so that if the peace negotiations with Israel are not renewed, then Syria will turn to adopt the option of resistance.” Senior Syrian officials told The New York Sun that Syria might establish a guerrilla organization to attack Israeli towns on the Golan and might rocket Israel Defense Forces positions there. Such talk prepared Syrian public opinion for the possibility of confrontation with Israel.
Indeed, on June 26, 2006, during a ceremony commemorating the 1974 return of the border town of Qunaytra seized during the previous year’s war, Syrian officials announced the establishment of the Popular Resistance Committees for the Liberation of the Golan Heights. Media reports in Israel mentioned these committees in connection to several incidents, such as setting fires and blocking roads in the Golan. It is doubtful that these committees have any connection to events, however, and appear to be little more than storefronts in Damascus for issuing propaganda communiqués.
Both the Syrian and Israeli militaries, meanwhile, readied for the possibility of renewed conflict with fortifications, rearmament, and robust training exercises. With tensions so high, Israeli as well as Western analysts and journalists worried that any small incident might ignite a war. What if a Syrian-supported terrorist group staged an attack in Israel, assuming that the Jewish state would not retaliate as it had in Lebanon because of Syrian missile deterrence? It was just such a flawed assumption that led Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah to order his men to kidnap two Israeli soldiers in July 12, 2006, sparking that summer’s war.
Until 2006, Israeli strategists calculated that they had room to maneuver against Syria. Israeli warplanes had buzzed Assad’s palace twice, in August 2003 and June 2006, in response to actions by Syrian-backed terrorists. In October 2003, IAF planes attacked a deserted Palestinian training camp at ‘Ayn al-Sahab, 6 kilometers northwest of Damascus, after Palestinian Islamic Jihad, headquartered in Damascus, killed twenty-two Israeli civilians at the Maxim restaurant in Haifa. Israeli officials would not have conducted such operations had they believed a hot war would result. The 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war suggested that neither state had significant room to maneuver-that amid bellicose rhetoric, any spark might lead to conflagration. But, as Amos Yadlin, head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Directorate of Military Intelligence, commented, the September 2007 raid restored Israeli deterrence vis-à-vis Syria.
Israel’s Air Raid It was against such a backdrop that the IAF carried out its raid. Officially, Israeli spokesmen refrained from saying anything, perhaps to avoid humiliating Assad in such a manner that might force him to respond and provoke an all-out war. On September 19, twelve days after the strike, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that the IAF had raided a site in Syria and that he had congratulated Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the success of the operation. Later, the Israeli military censorship board gave permission to all the media in the country to talk about the operation as a confirmed fact without having to state that their reports were based on Western sources, as previously required.
Satellite images show before (L) and after shots of the suspect Syrian nuclear facility bombed by Israeli aircraft near the town of Dayr al-Zur. After an initial Israeli silence of twelve days, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that the Israeli air force had raided a site in Syria. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad later told a Tunisian newspaper that the Israeli planes had targeted “a military installation in the process of being constructed.”
Syria decided for its own reasons to publicize the attack. Perhaps Assad preferred not to wait for Israel to make an announcement as had happened in the past. Inconsistency in Syrian statements, though, intensified the mystery surrounding the strike. The Syrian military spokesman published a statement confirming that Israeli aircraft had penetrated Syrian airspace but said that they had been driven out by Syrian air defense units and forced to drop their bombs over unpopulated territory. Several days later, Syrian foreign minister Walid Mu’alim denied that the intruding Israeli planes had attacked any targets inside of Syria. The admission that the Israeli planes had indeed attacked something in Syria came in the end from Assad. He told the BBC that Israeli aircraft had attacked an “unused military building” but refused to say why he thought Israel would attack a target of “no value.” Ten days later, he told a Tunisian newspaper that the Israeli planes had targeted, “a military installation in the process of being constructed, and [so] there were no military personnel or other persons in it, either before or during the time of the bombing.”
The Syrians could not have failed to notice the lack of international support for Syria. Even more problematic for Damascus was the lack of any Arab support, let alone solidarity. Every Arab country, without exception, chose to ignore the Israeli operation. The only leader Assad called after the attack was Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan, whereas the Israeli prime minister contacted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II to discuss the incident.
Indeed, the only cause for concern for the Turkish government was the possibility that Israeli aircraft may have violated Turkish airspace on their way to their target-but a few days later, Ankara announced that it was satisfied with Israeli explanations.
The U.S. and British media speculated initially that the operation was a dry run for a possible attack on Iran or that it was meant to intercept advanced weapons systems being transported overland to Hezbollah. Reports soon emerged that the target was a nuclear facility being built with North Korean aid. On April 24, 2008, this was confirmed by the U.S. government. Whatever the truth, it is clear that Jerusalem considered it imperative to destroy the target with the utmost speed. In response to Western allegations, Assad said he did not seek nuclear weapons and that, in 2001, he rejected an offer from middlemen answering to rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadir Khan out of fear that it was an Israeli entrapment operation.
It is plausible, though, that Assad had changed his mind. For more than three decades, Damascus and Pyongyang have enjoyed intimate relations. It was North Korea that, following the Soviet lead, supplied Syria with advanced missiles and, later, with technology to enable Syria to improve significantly its arsenal of long-range ground-to-ground missiles. The experience of both North Korea and Libya shows that small, backward states can procure nuclear arms if they set that objective as a top priority. Perhaps the only reason Libya is not a nuclear state today is because Libyan strongman Mu’ammar Qadhafi believed the U.S. military might launch a preemptive strike on his regime. Committed by its own diplomacy to cease nuclear work at Yongbyon, the North Korean regime may have looked favorably upon the opportunity to simply outsource its research and development.
Assad may also have decided that he wished to gain the immunity that nuclear weapons provide to any regime holding them. U.S. forces ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq but offered concessions to North Korea in the face of the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear defiance. Assad may feel his regime faces regional if not international threats to its stability to which nuclear weapons could be an antidote. He may have alluded to this in the wake of the Israel-Hezbollah war when on August 15, 2006, he declared, “When we strengthen the resistance, our aim is to achieve peace, and not to advance war. The way to advance peace is by means of deterrent power that will enable us to prevent aggression against us.” He later told the German magazine Der Spiegel, “As far as I myself am concerned, I do not believe in war. But I do believe in deterrence, that is, in the principle of deterrence.” Such a policy would be a natural continuance of his father’s attempts to achieve strategic balance between Israel and the Arab states. While Hafez al-Assad may have conceived this balance in terms of conventional military strength, by the beginning of the 1990s, he had adjusted his strategy to achieve parity based on a balance of terror-that is, Damascus strived to equip itself with unconventional weapons, such as chemical weapons.
As time passed, it became clear that Bashar al-Assad had no interest in a flare up, let alone war. The Syrian leader told the BBC, “When we say to respond or to repay [Israel for its aggression], we do not necessarily mean to send a missile for every missile or a bomb for every bomb. We have our own ways of responding, for example, a political response, or perhaps a response by other means and in other ways. It is clear that it is our right to respond, but if we respond militarily, then we will be acting in accord with the Israeli agenda, which we are not interested in doing.” Seldom do Arab statesmen forget slights; it is possible that Assad will seek to attribute a future transgression to revenge.
Conclusions The September 2007 IAF raid may well be the most formative event of recent years in Israeli-Syrian relations. Jerusalem surprised Assad and compelled him to recognize that the Israel-Hezbollah war had not changed the strategic balance as much as he believed. Not only had Israeli forces reached deep into Syria, but Jerusalem had also won diplomatically by focusing international attention on Syrian nuclear intentions. First, exposure of his nuclear adventurism cancelled any plaudits Assad had won for maturity and judgment; second, the raid exposed Assad’s posturing to be false, not only for his domestic Syrian constituency but also for Arab and Islamic states.
Quite a few Israeli observers have claimed that one of the results-even if indirect-of the IAF attack in September was Syria’s decision to participate in the Annapolis peace conference in November 2007. Still, the dynamic between Syria and Israel remains negative. In the absence of any genuine prospects for a peace process, and despite the temporary relaxation of tensions between the two countries, it would seem that their relations will continue to be marked by accumulating tension, military preparations, and forecasts of war-if not in the spring, then in the summer, and if not in 2008, then in 2009.
Eyal Zisser is the director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.
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