Yesterday the House and Senate intelligence committees were briefed by US intelligence officials on the details of a September ‘07 Israeli strike on a Syrian facility that allegedly had nuclear capabilities. The press then received its own briefing .
Lots of questions though remain unanswered, including why release the information now, what does this mean for an escalation in Israeli-Syrian tensions, or conversely a breakthrough in back-channel peace negotiations, what does it mean for the US-North Korea talks, and why would Syria have been pursuing a nuclear program?
Here is a quick attempt to look those issues.
1. What were the Syrians up to and why?
Here is the AFP on the bottom line of yesterday’s briefing:
They said US intelligence had "high confidence" that the structure bombed by the Israelis was a nuclear reactor, "medium confidence" that the North Koreans were involved in building it, and "low confidence" that plutonium from it was for nuclear weapons…Because other elements of a weapons program, such as a plutonium reprocessing plant, had not been detected, US intelligence was less certain that the plutonium was for nuclear weapons, they said.
But the evidence and photos, if they are to be taken at face value, were certainly impressive and convincing according to those who attended the briefing. Writing in the Washington Post, Robin Wright did add this note of caution: “The sole photograph shared with reporters depicting Syrian and North Korean officials together did not appear to be the Al Kibar reactor site.”
And David Albright president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) and a former US weapons inspector urged skepticism regarding there being an active Syrian weapons program.
Syrian officials both before and after today’s briefing have been adamant that no such program exists. According to Haaretz, Israeli intelligence officials are suggesting that “Most senior members of his [Assad’s] regime in Damascus apparently were not aware that the country had a nuclear program.”
If indeed, as seems to be the case, Syria was up to something, here is a possible explanation as to why: Syria is unlikely to feel that it needs a nuclear weapons capacity, or is capable of sustaining a serious program, but the beginnings of a program and a facility might be a useful bargaining chip in any future negotiation with the US (and as part of a triangular US-Israel-Syria negotiation).
2. Why now, and is it all about Matzah?
The Israeli military strike occurred over 7 months ago, so why did the administration choose to go public only now? If you want an American-centric take on the timing, then this one sounds most plausible: those both inside and outside the administration who are keen to torpedo the North Korea talks finally notched up a success having worked their friends and allies in Congress in order to force this outcome. John Bolton was doing a particularly good impression of a Cheshire cat yesterday. Juan Cole speculates on his blog that the timing was a useful distraction from the latest revelations on the arrest of an alleged Israeli spy in the US. The DPKR-Syria story was unquestionably a reminder for the US of the effectiveness and usefulness of Israeli intelligence (MJ Rosenberg has a wonderful op-ed in today’s Haaretz on some of the other implications of the latest spy story).
If one is looking for a more Israelo-centric view of the timing, then this is about Matzah. How so? Well Israel’s Knesset goes into a long recess over the Passover holiday, which means that the government doesn’t have to face votes of no confidence or embarrassing questions. What seems to have happened is that Israel and Syria have coordinated the public release of new information regarding secret peace negotiations partly in order to reduce tensions generated by the North Korea disclosure (see point 4). These new leaks about back-channel talks have mobilized the anti-Golan withdrawal right wing within Israel but at a time when they cannot take their action to the Knesset. In short, Passover is a good time to bury problematic stories—anyway Jewish-Israeli stomachs are far too concentrated on their Matzah-induced stomach problems to care about political shenanigans.
3. And If Now, Was It Wise?
Here was the claim made at yesterday’s briefing:
The administration said it withheld the pictures for seven months out of fear that Syria could retaliate against Israel and start a broader war in the Middle East.
Yet this claim on timing flies in the face of logic—the material has been released when things are even more tense and significantly so after the assassination of Imad Moughniyeh and the passing of the mourning period of 40 days since his death. The Israelis are extremely antsy about this, and I think this together with intel exposure reasons explains why the Israeli security establishment was so unenthusiastic about this material being made public now. It is surely more dangerous now than then.
The Israeli security establishment perspective is reported in today’s Haaretz:
Senior Israeli defense sources said last night that it was still early to gauge how Damascus would react to the news, but warned that the Syrians may now reconsider and decide to retaliate against Israel in some way...In recent internal discussions, senior Israeli defense establishment officials expressed concern that the official American release of details about the strike would embarrass Syrian leader Bashar Assad, and lead him to take a more aggressive stance toward Israel.
And there’s more:
Defense Minister Ehud Barak opposed the release of any new details on the attack or the nuclear ties between Damascus and Pyongyang, arguing that this would only push the Syrians into a corner and would escalate tensions.
This is one more demonstration that the neocons who pushed for this have their own agenda—and to the extent to which it dovetails an Israeli agenda—it is the agenda of the opposition on Israel’s far-right and has nothing to do with actual Israeli security interests (or any logical reading of American interests for that matter).
There is still of course the question of why none of this was taken to the IAEA over the past seven months or before.
4. Israel-Syria: Peace or War
All of this is taking place against the backdrop of new leaks and speculation regarding an Israeli-Syrian back-channel to resume peace negotiations.
In his Passover holiday media interview one week ago, Prime Minister Olmert hinted that something was cooking. Ma’ariv columnist Ben Caspit had this to say:
Is there or is there not a channel of negotiations with Syria? Olmert merely hints at who, at this stage, is preventing such a dialogue. His name is George W. Bush. When will it be possible for Israel to talk to Syria? When Bush leaves the White House.
Then earlier this week reports started coming from the Syrian side. “Three unofficial media outlets in Syria—the daily Al-Watan, the Dunia television station and the Champress website”—revealed messages from Olmert to Assad via the Turkish PM Erdogan. That message, according to Syrian Expatriate Affairs Minister and Bashar confidante, Dr. Buthaina Shaaban:
Olmert notified Turkey that he was willing for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for a peace agreement that is based on UN resolutions and on international criteria.
President Assad then himself confirmed the stories in an interview to the Qatari daily al-Watan newspaper. The full text of the interview will be published Sunday, but the teaser included the following:
The Syrian president confirmed that Erdogan had ‘relayed to me Israel’s readiness to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria’…Assad also noted that ‘direct negotiations need a sponsor and, unfortunately, this sponsor can only be the U.S. This is the reality of the situation. But the current administration has no vision and no will to support a peace process…perhaps with a future administration in the U.S., we would be able to speak of direct negotiations.’
So here is a delicious and rare moment of Israeli-Syrian agreement: : we both want to talk, the nature of the Syria-Israel issue is that we both need US facilitation, the Bush Administration is not interested and so, we will have to wait. Commenting in Israel’s leading daily, Yediot Aharonot, analyst Shimon Shiffer, who is very close to Olmert, speculated:
Let’s start from the end. Notwithstanding the messages between Olmert and Assad, it is almost certain that the negotiations will not be renewed in the near future—at least not until the next tenant takes up residence in the White House in January 2009 and sponsors an initiative to revitalize the negotiations with American patronage and financial support.
Shiffer’s piece unsurprisingly was entitled “Waiting for the Next President” and even if both sides are exaggerating a little, the symmetry of message and US role (negative) is breath-taking.
Martin Indyk—director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and former US Ambassador to Israel—summed it up in testimony yesterday to the House FRC, Sub-Committee on Middle East:
As I understand it, the Bush Administration is unwilling to encourage Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations…this puts the U.S. in the unprecedented and invidious position of opposing an opportunity for Arab-Israeli peacemaking even when our ally Israel is keen to pursue it.
5. A Last Gasp Test for Condoleezza Rice
Secretary Rice did not have a stunning record at the NSC for pushing back against extreme neocon influence, there has been the sense of a slight improvement during her term at State, and most notably in moving the Korea Six-party talks and breakthrough direct negotiations. This is now threatened by the new revelations. It would not be unfair to argue that this really becomes a test for Secretary Rice as to whether she can keep the North Korea process on track in the face of what seems to be a well coordinated effort instigated by neo-cons both inside and outside the administration to derail that process.
It’s likely to be her final test in this respect (unless…Iran…)