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Stabroek News

Mysterious Israeli air strike
published: Thursday | September 27, 2007

John Rapley

Early this month, in the middle of the night, Israeli air force pilots boarded their planes for a mission so secret, even they weren't told what they were doing. Hours later, Syria announced that it had successfully repelled an Israeli air strike.

To this day, it's still not clear what the Israelis were up to. Israel has remained officially silent. Only when the country's opposition leader recently told an interviewer that he had been consulted about the raid, was it confirmed within Israel that a raid had taken place.

Apparently, a small number of Israeli and American officials were briefed about it. They hint that the Israelis presented compelling evidence that an air attack was necessary. Beyond that, little is known.

Information famine feeds rumour, and so the air has quickly filled with speculation as to what actually happened. The raid appears to be somehow connected with the arrival of a North Korean ship in Syria shortly before the incident. The North Koreans have been known in the past to have exported nuclear technology, so some observers have inferred that the Syrians are building a secret weapons programme.

Nuclear bomb

Others have dismissed this suggestion. Neither the Syrians nor the North Koreans would seem to have an interest in developing a nuclear bomb in the Syrian desert. The North Koreans are being closely watched by the Americans, and have little to gain from jeopardising the diplomatic pay-offs they have won from the six-party talks earlier this year, when they agreed to curtail their nuclear activities. The Syrians, meanwhile, have shown little interest in developing nuclear weapons. Any programme they have would likely be at a primitive, unthreatening stage.

So others have speculated that it was delivery systems the Syrians were after. This would seem to explain the North Korean presence, since they have been developing missile technology. And the Syrian motive might be to develop weapons that they could then send to Hezbollah, their anti-Israeli ally in southern Lebanon.

Yet others think the plot is thicker than that. They suggest the air strike may have been a diversionary tactic to some ground operations, about which nothing is known. Or they surmise that the Israelis were testing Syrian air defences ahead of a future operation, or perhaps even trying to assassinate a Palestinian leader hiding in Syria. Or even, as one theory has it, running a trial for an eventual attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

This one would seem to make more sense. That the Israelis have been planning for some time for a possible eventual strike on Iran is clear. That the Americans have also been speaking with the Israelis about it is obvious. And the timing seems to fit: some observers have detected a shift in the Bush administration, from the "doves" around Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and towards the "hawks" around Vice President Dick Cheney. As the Bush administration approaches its last year in office, they seem to be itching for some kind of direct hit on Iran.

One-off event

Having Israel do it for them would be the most likely way the Americans would pull it off. The problem with this theory, though, is that the route the Israeli air craft took does not seem the most logical one for an Iranian raid. Moreover, the noises coming out of Israel suggest that this was a one-off event which has met whatever goals were set for it.

Paradoxically, while the rai tensions between Syria and Israel, there's little evidence the appetite for war has risen on either side of the border. So there may be more to this than meets the eye.

John Rapley is a senior lecturer in the Department of Government, UWI, Mona.

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