It was, perhaps, the worst kept “secret” in the Middle East.

In 2007, Israel destroyed a nuclear reactor in western Syria, near the Iraq border, being built with North Korean and Iranian help. That worst kept secret was the subject of much reporting, but Israel never officially acknowledged what happened. Now it has, and has provided details.

The Israel Air Force (IAF) website announced yesterday, The Untold Story: IAF Attack of Syrian Nuclear Reactor:

The IAF attacked and destroyed the Syrian nuclear reactor in Dier ez-Zor in the night between September 5th and 6th, 2007, in operation “Silent Tone” – a historic operation of great significance for the IAF, IDF, State of Israel and Jewish People.

The Syrian nuclear reactor project operated under a heavy cloak of secrecy for about six years, and was exposed by the Israeli Intelligence Community in its final stages, a few months before its completion and operation. The premise that led Israel in its decision to attack it, was that the existence of an operational nuclear reactor in Syria would significantly impact the strategic reality in the Middle East and represent a potential existential threat to the State of Israel.

The IAF released these images of the pilots and plane that took part in the operation:

Israeli newspapers, which had been barred from publishing details by Israeli military censor rules, came forward with detailed accounts, including how Israel stumbled upon the existence of the reactor very late in the process.

Haaretz reports in great detail based on evidence it has collected over the last decade but could not previously report, No Longer a Secret: How Israel Destroyed Syria’s Nuclear Reactor. Read the whole thing, here’s an excerpt:

It is especially surprising that this is also the story of a secret that was maintained for a long time here in Israel despite the considerable personal interests of a number of those who are now involved in its publication. Only now, more than a decade later, has the military censor allowed the Israeli media to report the history of this affair – and even that, still with restrictions….

A large, cubical building that was still under construction in the heart of the Syrian desert, not far from Deir al-Zour, was a focus of the Israeli defense establishment starting from the end of 2006. Very quickly, it was given a name: the Cube. As the months went by, the suspicion grew that beneath the broad roof of the building hid President Bashar Assad’s secret flagship project: a nuclear reactor produced in North Korea, intended to provide the younger Assad with the achievement that had eluded his father, Hafez Assad, on the battlefield and between wars – and to lead toward a point of strategic balance that could cancel out Israel’s clear military and technological advantage….

The first research breakthrough occurred in November 2006. Major Y., a researcher in MI’s technology branch, composed a document headed “An Issue for Examination.” This is a well-known procedure in MI whereby, with the approval of the head of the organization and the head of the research division, a researcher is permitted to publish a dissenting assessment, even if it is not accepted by the chain of command, in order to prompt examination of a new hypothesis. Until then MI had been focusing on the more accepted channel of countries working their way toward a nuclear project – an installation for enriching uranium, based on centrifuges. Y. reached the conclusion that they were looking in the wrong place. Assad was building a plutonium nuclear reactor, he argued. The 20-page document was distributed to top defense officials. At the Mossad they remained skeptical….

The next breakthrough, in fact the turning point of the whole affair, occurred in Vienna in early March 2007. Israel has never officially acknowledged or accepted responsibility for it, and the following is based on an investigative report published by American journalist David Makovsky in The New Yorker in 2012. According to the report, Ibrahim Othman, head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission, had come to Austria to participate in the deliberations of the International Atomic Energy Agency. A cell of Mossad agents from the Keshet unit broke into the apartment where Othman was staying and within less than an hour “vacuumed up” the information that was on the Syrian official’s personal computer, which had remained in the apartment while he was taking part in the conference.

Othman’s negligence turned out to be the worst security offense in the history of Syria. Had it not been for his carelessness and the Mossad’s brilliant work, it is doubtful that the operation to destroy the reactor would have taken place.

When the material taken from the computer was received in Israel, it was found to include about 35 photographs from inside the mysterious building in the Syrian desert. In the pictures, the inside of the reactor is visible, and in it are fusion cylinders and bars and also some Korean workers.

This video shows how, once Israel confirmed the use of the building, the attack was carried out.

The IAF also released video of the strike:

In this interview, one of the pilots describes the strike:

The Times of Israel reports how the U.S. administration of George W. Bush had conflicting views on how and whether the attack should be carried out. Dick Cheney wanted the U.S. Air Force to carry out the air strike, but was overruled by Bush, who didn’t even want the Israelis to attack. But it seems that the go-ahead was given with a nod and a wink:

In mid-June, Olmert arrived in the United States for a meeting with Bush. Prior to the meeting the president consulted his advisers. Michael Hayden, the head of the CIA, wrote years later in The Washington Post that he told Bush that his agency had concluded that the site at Al Kibar was part of a nuclear weapons program and there was no other explanation for its existence. However, Hayden added a reservation: No other elements of such a program were identified, such as development of a warhead. Therefore, the findings from the reactor were presented as findings “at a low level of certainty.” In Israel they were surprised by that conclusion.

In his memoirs, Bush wrote that following Hayden’s assessment, he told Olmert at their meeting on June 19 that he could not justify an American attack on a sovereign state. Olmert implored Bush and Cheney to attack nevertheless, and argued that such a move would also help deter Iran. “I am able to defeat Syria,” said Olmert in that conversation, “but I need you to act there specifically because of the Iranian nuclear program.”

On July 13, Bush informed Olmert in a conversation over the direct and secure “red phone” line between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem that he opposed a military attack on the reactor. However, said the president, he had decided to send an envoy to Syria to pose an ultimatum to Assad to demolish the reactor, under international supervision. The prime minister warned the American president that setting the diplomatic channel in motion would make it possible for the Syrians to play for time in the talks while hastening the completion of the construction of the reactor. Israel and the West, he said, would lose the element of surprise.

In the Israeli defense establishment, the concern was that if the diplomatic channel were employed, Assad was liable to position anti-aircraft batteries near the reactor or even to establish something like a kindergarten there as a “human shield.” The prime minister was also afraid of a leak to the media by American officials who opposed an Israeli attack. He succeeded in persuading Bush to halt the diplomatic move and to commit to preventing leaks. Olmert did not ask Bush for authorization of an Israeli attack but let the president understand that he was of a mind to order the IDF to act. “If you don’t do it, we will,” he said.

Haaretz produced this graphic showing the positions of various U.S. officials:

Since everyone “knew” Israel conducted the attack, why wait so long to admit it? Defense News reports:

Despite media and think tank reports based on WikiLeaks documents, U.S. congressional testimony and even reference to the event contained in the 2010 memoir by former U.S. President George W. Bush, Israel’s military censor continued to impose blanket gags on all details surrounding the operation.

For more than a decade, Israel stuck to its policy of deniability aimed at preventing undue embarrassment to Assad that could have forced the Syrian leader to respond in ways that could have spiraled into war.

“In 2007, I was very worried that the operation could trigger war with Syria,” recalled retired Israeli Air Force Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, who was the head of military intelligence at the time. “Our mission was to eliminate an existential threat to the state of Israel, while minimizing the risk of a broader war.”

But why NOW unleash the Israeli reporters, with their intricate detailed reporting?

Surely it has to do with Iran’s nuclear program and its military adventurism in Syria aimed at Israel. It is, perhaps a warning that when necessary, Israel will do what it takes, including hitting far from Israel’s borders.


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