Israel officially claims responsibility for eliminating Syrian nuclear program in 2007

Just before midnight on September 5, 2007, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert arrived at the Israel Air Force “pit” at the Kirya IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv and eight Israeli jets took off for Syrian airspace with al-Kibar facility as their target.

Entering Syria via Turkey, their target was a nuclear reactor in advanced stages of construction in the northeastern province of Deir al-Zor, 450 km. northeast of Damascus.

Shortly before midnight, four F-15 and four F-16 aircraft took off from the Ramat David Airbase in northern Israel. The target marked on their computers was an isolated square-shaped building in a desert in northeastern Syria. They flew north along the Mediterranean Sea and then turned east on the borderline between Syria and Turkey.

Between 12:40am and 12:53am, the pilots repeated the codename, Arizona, before 24 tons of ammunition was dropped on Al-Kibar, a nuclear reactor that was secretly built by Syrian President Bashar Assad in the Deir ez-Zor area with North Korea’s help and guidance. The reactor was destroyed. All pilots returned safely. The Syrian nuclear program was eliminated.

The Middle East, and perhaps the entire world, are breathing a retroactive sigh of relief today.

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In the decade that has passed since then, Israel persistently refused to take official responsibility for the operation, until the Israeli Military Censor decided this week to clear it for publication. It was (yet another) classic case of the elusive ambiguity Israel specializes in when it comes to security-related issues: Making no declarations and taking no responsibility, but occasionally throwing some hints into the air.

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But the international press, and American officials who obviously are not subject to the Israeli censorship, failed to exercise the same restraint Jerusalem had sentenced itself to. In April 2008, US intelligence officials had already briefed Congress on their part in the Israeli attack on the reactor, and several sources in George W. Bush’s administration—including the president himself—addressed the affair in different ways in books they wrote and interviews they gave.

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Assad was caught in a dilemma, as his failure to report the construction of the reactor was a violation of his commitment to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Israeli assessment was that to avoid further international trouble, not to mention the humiliation in having his nuclear ambitions shattered in an Israeli strike, Assad would prefer to bury the issue. If Israel avoided boasting about the attack in public, it would allow Assad plausible deniability and prevent a retaliation, which is why all the different security organizations—with Foreign Minister Livni’s enthusiastic support—were in favor of a “low-signature” operation.

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Assad’s actual reaction was confused. First, he responded in complete denial (“Israeli Air Force planes infiltrated Syria’s airspace and were driven away”). Then, he claimed the target of the strike was a deserted military camp. Finally, he issued a weak threat that he reserved the right to retaliate, though not necessarily in a “bomb for bomb” manner.

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The destruction of the reactor by Israel turned out to have a dramatic impact on the region’s future. The changes Syria has been going through over the past six years raise alarming questions on what could have happened had Assad completed his plan under the international community’s nose and had nuclear abilities today. Equally alarming is the possibility that the reactor could have fallen into the hands of one of the radical Islamic groups fighting the regime. Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, who served as Military Intelligence chief at the time of the operation, said recently that the strike prevented “a Middle East no one would have wanted to live in.”

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