Just What DID Happen In Syria Last Week?
This comes to mind this week as the puzzle grows over just what happened over Syria last week. It is established that the Israelis initiated some kind of aerial incursion over the northeastern part of the country. But did they bomb anything? And, if so, was it an Iranian long range missile facility? Or was it a nuclear facility or nuclear equipment the North Koreans were providing to the Syrians? Or could renegrade Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan have somehow been involved in whatever was being provided to the Syrians?
There has been quite a bit of speculation, although precious little of it has been in either the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times. Both the Washington Post and the Associated Press have printed more about it.
The Post said Thursday that North Koreans were present in Syria and may have provided the regime of Bashar Assad with something nuclear, and that this had become known to the Israelis who have been conducting aerial surveillance over Syria.
Then, this morning, in a story out of Rome, where a nuclear nonproliferation conference is being held, the Associated Press quoted Andrew Semmel, the acting deputy assistant U.S. Secretary of State for nuclear nonproliferation, as saying that the North Koreans were present in Syria and may have been providing the Syrians some nuclear equipment.
Semmel was the first American official named as a source in this murky story. Neither the Israelis nor the Syrians have said very much. The North Koreans, however, did issue a complaint about the Israeli incursion last week, and Syria notified the United Nations of the incursion, but did not ask for any action by that body. Turkey did publicly ask the Israelis for an explanation, reporting that Israeli aircraft had dropped some munitions over Turkey, without causing any damage, and perhaps as a means of better enabling the Israeli aircraft to evade Syrian missiles fired at them. There also were published reports that the Turkish Army, without telling the Islamist-minded Turkish prime minister, had provided security information about nuclear activities in Syria to the Israelis.
The Israelis were reported to have used five F151 long range bombers in the flights over Syrian territory. But did these planes conduct an actual strike? There were various reports, none so far verified, that they had, either knocking out Iranian missiles in transit to Hezbollah in Lebanon, or "leaving a large hole" in the ground where the Iranian equipment had been, or striking the North Koreans, whatever they were doing.
Such an air strike undoubtedly would have caused casualties among, possibly, Syrian, Iranian or North Korean personnel. But none of these countries admitted to taking any casualties.
The Jerusalem Post, which usually does a more comprehensive job covering Middle Eastern developments of all kinds than any other newspaper, ran lengthy stories in recent days on the foreign news reports, but had nothing in the way of direct reporting on the Israeli explanations or non-explanations. The Israelis may have invoked Israeli censorship to prevent the media in Israel from saying anything directly about what the Israelis had done.
Strangely enough, among all the speculation abroad, no one to my knowledge has yet taken note of the fact that the purported location of an Israeli strike would have been very close to the Iraqi border. But if the Iranians were creating a long range missile base, or the North Koreans were creating something nuclear, so close to Iraq, this could be as much of a threat to American forces in Iraq as it could be to Israel, and we would expect the U.S. to be most concerned. In fact, it is not inconceivable by any means that the U.S. would stand idly by if it believed such a threat existed.
At a time when the U.S. has been involved in seemingly fruitful denuclearization talks with the North Koreans, and there have even been international inspections of North Korean nuclear facilities, it would obviously be a matter of the highest concern if the North Koreans were moving nuclear materials outside of North Korea to the Middle East. Yet in his remarks in Rome, the U.S. State Department official suggested this may have been done.
What Semmel said was conditional, but the fact that he was speaking on the record at all was somewhat remarkable. State Department officials do not usually make public statements about anything without clearance from the home office in Washington.
The AP story quoted Semmel as saying, "There are indications that they do have something going on there. We do know that there are a number of foreign technicians that have been in Syria. We do know that there may have been contact between Syria and some secret suppliers for nuclear equipment. Whether anything transpired remains to be seen.
"So good foreign policy, good national security policy, would suggest that we pay very close attention to that. We're watching very closely. Obviously, the Israelis were watching very closely."
In the background of the War on Terror, one of the most disturbing things is the fear, frequently expressed, that the terrorists might somehow acquire nuclear weapons and then use them against the Israelis, the Americans or other Western countries. This is a major component of all the concern about the unstable poiitical situation in Pakistan, which is a nuclear-armed state where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have been growing in influence and are in defacto revolt against Pakistani authority in regions bordering Afghanistan.
In the Israeli air incursion over Syria, the nuclear situation in this part of the world became more than just a matter of concern, and possibly passed into the realm of action. Stay tuned, this may only be beginning.
Larry Stewart had a wonderful 35-year career as a writer about sports television, and now he has a new assignment: horse racing for the L.A. Times. I always enjoyed Stewart's column and wish him well in the future.
Labels: North Korea