Israeli nuclear suspicions linked to raid in Syria

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 18-Sep-07 | Author: Mark Mazzetti and Helene Coope| Source: International Herald Tribune

An Israeli F16C fighter jet

WASHINGTON: The Sept. 6 attack by Israeli warplanes inside Syria struck what Israeli intelligence believes was a nuclear-related facility that North Korea was helping to equip, according to current and former American and Israeli officials.

Details about the Israeli assessment emerged as China abruptly canceled planned diplomatic talks in Beijing that were to set a schedule to disband nuclear facilities in North Korea. The Bush administration has declined to comment on the Israeli raid, but American officials were expected to confront the North Koreans about their suspected nuclear support for Syria during those talks.

The American and Israeli officials said the Israeli government notified the Bush administration about the planned attack just before the raid. It is not clear whether administration officials expressed support for the action or counseled against it.

The raid has aroused intense speculation in Washington and Jerusalem, but details remain extraordinarily murky. Officials said access to new intelligence about suspected North Korean support to Syria has been confined to a very small group of officials in Washington and Jerusalem.

The details of the Israeli intelligence remain highly classified, and the accounts about Israel's thinking were provided by current and former officials who are generally sympathetic to Israel's point of view. It is not clear whether American intelligence agencies agree with the Israeli assessment about the facility targeted in the raid, and some officials expressed doubt that Syria has either the money or the scientific talent to initiate a serious nuclear program.

But current and former American and Israeli officials who have received briefings from Israeli sources said Monday that the raid was an attempt by Israel to destroy a site that Israel believed to be associated with a rudimentary Syrian nuclear program.

The allegations come at a particularly delicate time, with the United States and several Asian countries testing whether North Korea is serious about dismantling its nuclear production facilities and providing a full accounting of all its nuclear facilities, fuel and weapons.

Israel is also wary of complicating continuing peace talks involving other countries in the Middle East about the future of a Palestinian state. In particular, the Bush administration has not decided yet whether Syria will be invited to a Middle East peace conference that is to be held in Washington in November. A tense Israel-Syria standoff would further complicate that decision, Israeli and American officials said.

The Sept. 6 strike was carried out several days after a ship with North Korean cargo tracked by Israeli intelligence docked in a Syrian port, according to the current and former officials. The cargo was transferred to the site that Israel later attacked, the officials said. It is unclear exactly what the shipment contained. A former top American official said the Israelis had monitored the site for some time before the ship arrived. The ship's arrival in Syria before the raid was first reported Saturday by The Washington Post.

It is also unclear why China decided at the 11th hour to postpone the planned talks, but Beijing's decision seemed to put off a possible confrontation between the United States and North Korea that could have scuttled the diplomatic talks with North Korea.

Christopher Hill, the top American negotiator for the talks, had already packed his bags and was preparing to depart for Beijing when he was notified of China's decision to delay the negotiations, American officials said.

North Korea has a long relationship with Syria, mostly involving the sale of weapons, particularly technology for relatively primitive missiles. But it has never been caught exporting nuclear-related material to either Syria or Iran, another of its customers for missile technology.

On Sunday on Fox News, Defense Secretary Robert Gates declined to confirm either whether Israel had attacked targets in Syria or whether North Korea was providing nuclear-related assistance to that Arab country. But he warned, "If such an activity were taking place, it would be a matter of great concern because the president has put down a very strong marker with the North Koreans about further proliferation efforts, and obviously any effort by the Syrians to pursue weapons of mass destruction would be a concern."

A senior North Korean diplomat dismissed the accusations, the South Korean news agency Yonhap said Sunday. "They often say things that are groundless," Kim Myong-gil, North Korea's deputy United Nations mission chief, told Yonhap.

Whether North Korean actions could ultimately cause a breakdown in disarmament talks may well depend on what, if anything, the United States concludes about the nature of any illicit relationship between Syria and the North.

The most benign of the theories is that the cargo had no use in a nuclear program. Another theory is that any equipment shipped from North Korea to Syria was designed to help Syria mine uranium and transform it into enriched uranium. That could mean that Syria is involved in only the early stages of any nuclear activity, and it could argue that the mining operation is for something other than weapons.

But any shipment of nuclear fuel to Syria by North Korea would be much more significant, though that is considered less likely and very risky for North Korea at this time.

"It would almost defy credibility that the North Koreans would be willing to risk so much to engage in a nuclear weapons-related proliferation," said Evans Revere, the president of the Korea Society in New York and a former senior American diplomat in Seoul.