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Foreign Press Reports Speculate on IAF's Syrian Operation

New leaks continue to fuel hypotheses regarding Israel's operation in Syria: from destroying N. Korean nukes to a dry-run for bombing Iran.
By Ezra HaLevi
First Publish: 9/16/2007, 12:02 PM

Speculation continues to abound regarding the nature of the Israeli Air Force operation on September 6th originally reported as a violation of Syrian airspace.

Israel’s military censor remains vigilant within the country, forcing Israel-based press to limit reporting to the reprinting of foreign reports on the shadowy operation. Israel's largest daily Yediot Acharonot reported only that the mission was titled Operation Orchard. Local press circles claim to have knowledge that Israel delivered a stunning blow to Syria, which was caught completely by surprise and suffered heavy losses.

The Korean Nuclear Material Story
The leading hypothesis now is that a shipment of material for a Syrian nuclear project from North Korean was the target of the air strike. That possibility was bolstered by a report Saturday in the Washington Post documenting the arrival of a vessel containing components of nuclear technology three days earlier in the region, before the Israeli planes struck.

According to the report, the shipment was labeled “cement” and the nascent nuclear facility as an “agricultural research center.” Israeli intelligence identified it, however, as a facility to “extract uranium from phosphates.” The Post said that secrecy surrounding the mission was even extended to the pilots taking part, who were not all briefed as to the full scope of the mission. The pilots who actually struck the facility, it says, only after takeoff.

Syria’s Ambassador to the US Imad Moustapha denied that report to Newsweek, calling it "absolutely, totally, fundamentally ridiculous and untrue."

US officials quoted by both the Washington Post and Fox News have confirmed the North Korean connection, however, and say that both North Korea and the nuclear proliferation network run by Pakistan’s Abdul Qadeer Khan have transferred to Syria information, technology and uranium-enrichment equipment.

An investigative report commissioned by Haaretz found that the SS Al-Hamed, a ship reported by different trade web sites as flying the North Korean flag, arrived in Syria during the time in question. Details of the ship and the fact that it was flying a North Korean flag were subsequently removed from the sites.

Weapons From Iran For Hizbullah
Last Wednesday, the New York Times reported that the targets struck by Israel were weapons caches being dispatched to Hizbullah in Lebanon by Iran.

Syria’s UN Ambassador dismissed that claim as well. "This is blah blah. This is nonsense, this is an unfounded statement. It is not up to the Israelis or anyone else to assess what we have in Syria," he said. "There was no target, they dropped their munitions. They were running away after they were confronted by our air defense.”

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, citing extensive unnamed sources, said that IDF ground forces took part in the operation, marking the targets. After the strikes, she said, there was a “big hole in the desert.”

Dry Run For Bombing Iran
According to the British Observer, the Israeli operation “involved as many as eight aircraft, including Israel's most ultra-modern F-15s and F-16s equipped with Maverick missiles and 500 pound bombs.”

The operation, the report speculates based on Turkish security sources, was a dry-run of a bombing mission that would destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. Turkey’s security and intelligence were “in the loop” according to the Observer report.

Just a Warning
The British Arabic-language Al-Arabiya newspaper has quoted unnamed sources from NATO’s headquarters in Brussels saying the goal of the Israeli operation was simply “a warning and an experiment.” The sources said Israel was surprised by Syria’s decision to publicize the overflights.

Syria’s Response
In his interview with Newsweek, Syrian Ambassador Moustapha said that Israel would "pay a price" for the operation.

Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad was then reported to have announced that Syria was not planning a military response to the Israeli operation. On Saturday, he suddenly denied reports that he had said any such thing, ostensibly opening up the possibility of a Syrian reprisal.

After a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Mekdad said: “Syria possesses the means to respond in ways that will preserve its position of power."

Syria filed a complaint with the United Nations over Israeli “aggressions and violation of sovereignty.” No mention was made of any targets bombed.