Israel’s “ministers committee for the northern front” gathered in early August for the sixth time of the summer. The prime minister’s office told the press that the committee was focused exclusively on preventive measures—making sure that Israel was ready for any possible eruption of hostilities on the northern border with either Hezbollah, which operates in Lebanon, or Syria. “Israel does not want a war with Syria,” government sources emphasized time and again. Three weeks later, on Sept. 6, a couple of Israeli fighter jets hit targets deep inside Syria. War did not follow, however. “Retaliate doesn’t mean missile for missile and bomb for bomb,” Syrian President Bashar Assad told the BBC a week ago. “We have our means to retaliate, maybe politically, maybe in other ways. But we have the right to retaliate.”
The threat of a looming “summer war” with Syria was a constant topic of discussion in Israel this spring and early summer. Only a year had passed since the war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the two forces were making noises about another fight in the making. The Syrians, it was said, might want to try to get back the Golan Heights, which have been occupied by Israel since 1967. Or they might want to force Israel and the United States into negotiations. Israeli intelligence officers and diplomats were talking about a Syrian “buildup” on the Israeli front. And there was a limited counterbuildup by Israel.
As is almost always the case with the Middle East, actual events took everybody by surprise. It wasn’t Syria that attacked, but Israel; not in the Golan, but near the Syria-Turkey border.
What did Israel attack? An unused military building, according to Assad. That’s highly unlikely—only a high-value target could justify Israel risking war by executing this mission. Both sides refrained from any official statements regarding the nature of the target, but knowledgeable sources say it was a “nuclear-related facility”—the forbidden fruit of Syrian cooperation with North Korea.
According to an ABC News report, the Israeli strike was opposed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, because she feared it would destabilize the region. The Bush administration persuaded Israel to shelve initial plans to strike during the week of July 14.
So, in hindsight, tracking the events of the summer is both entertaining and disturbing. Three days before the 14th—the time of this planned-but-postponed attack—the Israeli chief of staff declared that “in my opinion, there will be no war with Syria this summer.” Was he saying this because he knew the attack was delayed, or was it a calculated feeding of disinformation to the public? The same question should be asked about Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s declaration—on July 13—that “Israel doesn’t want war and Syria doesn’t want war.” Nothing seems now the way it seemed back then. No statement by an Israeli or a Syrian leader, no suspected military buildup, no expression of peaceful intentions, no refusal to negotiate, no diplomatic maneuver.
“Nearly everything Israeli experts expected Hafez Assad to do—up to his death in 2000—and subsequently Bashar, were either not done, or the opposite was done,” wrote my colleague Amir Oren in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. Israel didn’t foresee the Syrian attack of 1973 that led to the Yom Kippur War; it did anticipate attacks that never came in 1981 and again in 1996; it was surprised by Syria’s decision to join the anti-Saddam coalition in 1990; and again by Damascus’ participation in the Madrid peace summit alongside Israel in 1991.
The achievement of the Sept. 6 operation should not be taken lightly: Someone detected a North Korean delivery of nuclear-related material to Syria. The storage site was mapped. The required number of hits and bombs was carefully calculated. The anti-aircraft-missile batteries were smartly circumvented. This is all quite remarkable. But it also underscores the fact that while we can detect the movements and the physical actions of North Korea and Syria, there are still a lot of things we don’t understand about the intentions and the plans of these regimes.
We know what we know about the target and the attack. But, as Jim Hoagland asked in Sunday’s Washington Post, was the delivery of materiel and knowledge from North Korea to Syria “[a] last gasp of North Korean international banditry before going straight on nuclear nonproliferation? A continuing confidence by Pyongyang that it can say one thing in public and do another covertly? Or simply the serendipity of one branch of a secretive government going about its skullduggery while others go a different way?”
These are all questions the United States should be asking before it completes a deal with Pyongyang. And similar questions can be asked about Syria: Was acquiring this component of the so-called “Syrian nuclear program” a bold move to build up Syrian force and use it for nefarious purposes or a cry for attention and a plea for negotiations? Is it Assad’s way of showing that he will use whatever means are in his power to preserve Syria’s influence in Lebanon and pressure Israel into returning the Golan Heights? Or was it a desperate last-ditch effort to preserve his declining regime? (For more on Assad’s potential motivations, see “Bashar the Gambler,” by Daniel Byman.)
There are only two ways to make peace where there’s such an intelligence gap: Take the best possible guess, or wait for time to pass and the chips to fall. In the case of both Syria and North Korea, the evidence doesn’t provide a clear answer about motives and intentions. That’s why this recent incident will provide arguments for and against negotiations or airstrikes or regime change or carrots and sticks. Physical evidence, such as soil samples from the site of the airstrike, can be definite and indisputable—but all the rest, even in this extreme case, is mere commentary.