What Actually Happened in the Syrian Desert?

One of the stories thats been intriguing the heck out of me over the past couple of weeks is that Israeli air strike into Syria.

Just today, the most solid facts of the strike have leaked out, but Bush administration officials are still publicly mum on the aerial attack that reportedly took out a nascent nuke capability deep in northern Syria.f-15I.jpg

The reports show that a North Korean ship docked at a Syrian port just a few days before the strike loaded with a shipment of cement (ya, right...). Heres what the reports are saying:

Unlike its destruction of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, Israel made no announcement of the recent raid and imposed strict censorship on reporting by the Israeli media. Syria made only muted protests, and Arab leaders have remained silent. As a result, a daring and apparently successful attack to eliminate a potential nuclear threat has been shrouded in mystery.

"There is no question it was a major raid. It was an extremely important target," said Bruce Riedel, a former intelligence officer at Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "It came at a time the Israelis were very concerned about war with Syria and wanted to dampen down the prospects of war. The decision was taken despite their concerns it could produce a war. That decision reflects how important this target was to Israeli military planners."

Israel has long known about Syria's interest in chemical and even biological weapons, but "if Syria decided to go beyond that, Israel would think that was a real red line," Riedel said.

And something else...

Some current and former American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because information about the raid remained classified, said they believed that the site was involved in Syrias missile program. They said that Israeli intelligence officials believed that they had evidence that the activity at the site involved North Korean engineers believed to work in the nuclear program.

So far, several current and former American officials who have been involved in evaluating the Israeli claims say they are not yet convinced of a nuclear connection. Yet the enormous secrecy around the findings, both here and in Israel, suggests that the activity that prompted the Israeli attack involved more than a run-of-the-mill missile transaction, one official said, noting that the Israelis took considerable risks in carrying out the attack.

Actually, I also wonder whether the Syrians would take such a huge risk, though pressure from their Iranian task masters could have outweighed the suicidal nature of this potential program.

But whats most intriguing about the strike is what it says about Syrias air defense system. Some claim that the Syrians have one of the most advanced SAM and radar-tracking architectures manufactured in Russia the same one used to protect Tehran called the Pantsyr. Apparently the unstealthy F-15I Israeli aircraft were able to make it into Syria without being shot out of the sky, and some reports indicate that they snuck their way out through Turkey either with permission or without.

Ive heard that the jamming of the Syrian air defenses was so severe that it shut down civilian comms inside Lebanon for the better part of a day. Pretty impressive; and that could be why Iran has been largely silent on the matter it would tip their hand that they are as vulnerable as the Syrians.

From our partners over at Stratfor:

Likely spooked by the IAF's intentions behind the overflight and with only a feeble diplomatic defense against Israel, the Syrians are being extremely cautious not to provoke a military confrontation with the Jewish state. Syria has even refrained thus far from massing troops along the border in response to Israel's military buildup in the Golan Heights, revealing that Damascus lacks the confidence and capability to risk a fight at this stage.

Debka has a good analysis of the air defense angle.

Western intelligence circles stress that information on Russian missile consignments to Syria or Iran is vital to any US calculation of whether to attack Iran over its nuclear program. They assume that the absolute jamming immunity which the Russian manufactures promised for the improved Pantsyr missiles was immobilized by superior electronic capabilities exercised by the jets before they were forced to leave.

Syria took delivery in mid-August of 10 batteries of sophisticated Russian Pantsyr-S1E Air Defense Missile fire control systems with advanced radar, those sources report. They have just been installed in Syria.

Understanding that the Pantsyr-S1E had failed in its mission to bring down trespassing aircraft, Moscow hastened Thursday, Sept 6, to officially deny selling these systems to Syria or Iran and called on Israel to respect international law. This was diplomatic-speak for a warning against attacking the Russian-made missiles batteries stations where Russian instructors are working alongside Syrian teams.

Western intelligence circles maintain that it is vital for the US and Israel to establish the location and gauge the effectiveness of Pantsyr-S1E air defenses in Syrian and Iranian hands, as well as discovering how many each received...

...The courage, daring and operational skills of the air crews must have been exceptional. They would have needed to spend enough time in hostile Syrian air space to execute several passes at varying altitudes under fire in order to test the Pantsyr-S1E responses. Their success demonstrated to Damascus and Tehran that their expensive new Russian anti-air system leaves them vulnerable.

Weve clearly not heard the last of this story. As more details trickle out and as Iran possibly ramps up its condemnation of the attack when its president arrives at the U.N. next week, Defense Tech will continue to report the more intriguing angles of what could be the beginning of a much wider confrontation.

-- Christian

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