The Israeli air strike in northern Syria of Wednesday night Sept. 6 was not the big deal presented in most reports, hyped up as they were by the shroud of official secrecy drawn over the event by Jerusalem, Damascus and Washington.
Military and Middle East experts have told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that the Israeli warplanes surgically targeted a small area, a facility disguised as an agriculture research center at Bir al-Harj on the Euphrates River near the Turkish border, which Israel believes is used for testing new weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological.
North Korean experts are known to visit the facility from time to time and assist in the experiments, although probably not on the night of the Israeli raid, while Iranian engineers are to be found everywhere in Syria’s military industry.
The number of Israeli air force planes which carried out the operation is not known, but they included F-15s, as attested to by the falling ammunition fragments picked up on the Syria and Turkish sides of the border.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources, the Israeli air force was harnessed for a US campaign larger than a single Syrian WMD facility: scare tactics to frighten Tehran and Damascus into backing away from their nuclear weapons ambitions and from black market purchases of elements of Pyongyang’s dismantled program.
US officials now fear that the massive proliferation generated by Iran’s steady progression towards a nuclear bomb and North Korea’s renunciation of nuclear weapons has begun to run out of control in the Middle East and parts of Asia.
The first to jump into the nuclear race were Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and even Libya. Each wants to own a national nuclear program and an autonomous uranium enrichment capability. Nuclear fever has also infected Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Pyongyang sells to the highest bidders
The nuclear black market, intelligence services report, is consequently back in business after languishing for four years. Russian, Ukrainian and Caucasian smuggling rings are reported across the Middle East and Asia to be flogging cut-price centrifuges and nuclear materials. Some say elements of the black market run by Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan, which escaped the law, are again openly touting their wares, funded and protected by central figures in the defense establishments of interested governments.
This trade is fueled, in the view of Washington and independent nuclear experts, by the leakage of components, centrifuges, missiles, elements of nuclear warheads and enriched uranium from North Korea.
The United States has no substantial evidence of the involvement of the top echelons of government in Pyongyang, according to DEBKA-net-Weekly’s intelligence sources, such as KimJong-il’s inner circle or his top generals. But some heads of North Korea’s nuclear industry and army generals appear to have jumped in to get banned merchandise out of the country to the highest bidders. The Washington Post reported earlier this week that Iran and Syria are believed to be in discussions with North Koreans who are offering under-the-counter nuclear-related equipment and materials.
Syria is said to be keen on apparatus for supplementing the equipment purchased from and installed by North Korea in 2003 at the Bir al Harj facility.
Knowledgeable American nuclear experts liken today’s rush to the North Korean bargain basement to the worldwide stampede of 1993 when it was possible to pick up in the crumbling USSR a variety of Soviet nuclear wares. Officials linked to the Soviet nuclear weapons industry, including scientists, had their hands out for the millions of dollars on offer for any items, whether missiles, nuclear suitcases, weapons-grade enriched uranium, documents or technical diagrams (which often turned out to be fake).
These days, however, the North Korean executives and generals want euros or pounds sterling rather than dollars. One such case surfaced last July when Iran purchased nuclear components and enriched uranium.
This and other discoveries set alarm bells clanging in Washington.
Freelancer trade with regime’s connivance
A subterranean two-way track was seen to be sending nuclear materials and missiles one way, and cash the other: North Korea was supplying overseas buyers, in return for cash deposited in the European bank accounts held by certain North Korean scientists and generals. This money movements, it emerged, were orchestrated by a member of the North Korean delegation at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, who had undertaken to manage his countrymen’s foreign assets and investments.
Washington saw that although the illicit trading in parts of the program which Kim Jong-il had pledged to dismantle appeared to be handled by freelancers, they were in fact acting with the regime’s silent connivance.
At some point, the Bush administration bluntly notified Pyongyang that its commitment did not end with the termination of its program; the various component parts must be surrendered for scrapping to an international body of which the US was a member.
The North Koreans ignored this warning.
The issue was clinched in the third week of August, when the sum of six million euros was transferred to North Korea’s “nuclear financial broker” in Vienna as Syria’s down payment for a large consignment of North Korean cement. The cash was sourced to Persian Gulf money changers known to broker transfers from both North Korea and Syria.
At that point, Washington decided to wait no longer.
Suspicion was further strengthened by reports that Syria had purchased from North Korea a load of cement that was to be shipped to the Syrian port of Tartus. No one doubted that “cement” was a euphemism for nuclear-related merchandise, especially when it was learned that the 1,700-tonne freighter Al Hamed of uncertain ownership, believed to have set out from the Persian Gulf under a North Korean flag, was heading for Tartus with a cargo of cement. The ship appeared to have departed from the big North Korean port of Hambung on the Sea of Japan at least two weeks before the money transfer took place, which is most unusual in such transactions.
Israel air force employed as scare tactic for Syria, Iran and North Korea
Yet the Americans refrained from intercepting, halting or searching the vessel before it docked on Sept. 3.
Our sources in Washington and Vienna have not learned from any American official why this was not done. But instead, the Israeli air force was deployed to attack the Bir al Harj facility three days after the “cement” was offloaded inTartus port.
Israeli intelligence had for years closely monitored the phony Syrian agricultural station on the Euphrates, keeping a wary eye on the development there of various weapons of mass destruction. Recently, they picked up unusually frequent visits by Iranian and North Korean scientists and engineers.
Israel clearly welcomed the opportunity to destroy a Syrian facility engaged in developing nuclear weapons. The advantage lay not only in aborting a potential threat, but also possibly ensuring that Syria would not think of resorting to nuclear arms against Israel for a very long time.
The attack served the United States as an unambiguous warning to Pyongyang to call off its roaring trade of bits and pieces of its nuclear program, as well as issuing a tangible caution to Syrian president Bashar Assad that he is now in Washington’s military sights, direct or indirect.
This caution is addressed equally to Damascus and its strategic ally, Tehran.
A senior American source told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that the episode which centered on the Israeli air attack is part of a comprehensive campaign which has only just begun.
“This is no one-shot exercise against a Syrian target involving Iran and North Korea. The Bush administration has embarked on a course of unrelenting pressure on Pyongyang, Damascus and Tehran, targeting the Syrian regime as the first object for punishment.
Assad can look forward to more surprise operations like the one which caught him napping at Bir al Harj.”
Syria and Iran’s vulnerability to Israel air and missile attack was demonstrated in that operation when the Pantsyr-S1E air defense missile systems they purchased from Russia were jammed without downing the invading Israeli jets.
(More about this in a separate item in this issue and in HOT POINTS below)