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Operation Orchard was an Israelimarker airstrike on a target in the Deir ez-Zor regionmarker of Syria carried out just after midnight (local time) on September 6, 2007. The White Housemarker and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) later declared that American intelligence indicated the site was a nuclear facility with a military purpose, though Syria denies this. Preliminary International Atomic Energy Agencymarker (IAEA) tests came up with no indication to back the claims of the United States or Israel, but a final evaluation justified a continuation of the investigation. Claims were made about "significant" traces of uranium found at the site, but these findings have been disputed by Syria. U.N. inspectors found "significant" traces of uranium at the site, while the IAEA subsequently discovered possible evidence of uranium processing at the site, but the evidence has been judged inconclusive and attempts at investigation are ongoing.

According to news reports, the raid was carried out by the Israeli Air Force's (IAF) 69th Squadron of F-15Is, F-16Is, and an ELINT aircraft; as many as eight aircraft participated and at least four of those aircraft crossed into Syrian airspace. The fighters were equipped with AGM-65 Maverick missiles, 500 lb bombs, and external fuel tanks. One report stated that a team of elite Israeli Shaldag special-forces commandos arrived at the site the day before so that they could highlight the target with laser beams, while a later report had (IDF) Sayeret Matkal special-forces commandos involved.

Pre-strike activity

In July 2007, an explosion occurred in Aleppo, northern Syria. The official Sana news agency said 15 Syrian military personnel were killed and 50 people were injured. The agency reported only that "very explosive products" blew up after fire broke out at the facility. The September 26 edition of Jane's Defence Weekly claimed that the explosion happened during tests to weaponise a Scud-C missile with mustard gas.

A senior U.S. official told ABC News that, in early summer 2007, Israel had discovered a suspected Syrian nuclear facility, and that Mossad then "managed to either co-opt one of the facility's workers or to insert a spy posing as an employee" at the suspected Syrian nuclear site, and through this was able to get pictures of the target from on the ground."

According to The Sunday Times, members of Israel's Sayeret Matkal covertly raided the suspected Syrian nuclear facility before the airstrike and brought nuclear material back to Israel. Anonymous sources report that once the material was tested and confirmed to have come from North Koreamarker, the United Statesmarker gave Israel approval for an attack. Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported that in August 2007, two helicopters ferried 12 Israelis to site in order to get photographic evidence and soil samples.

Senior U.S. officials later denied any involvement in or approval of the attack, but were informed in advance. Another report indicated that Israel planned to attack the site as early as July 14, but some U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, preferred a public condemnation of Syria, thereby delaying the military strike until Israel feared the information would leak to the press. The Sunday Times also reports that the mission was "personally directed" by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

According to the Washington Post an "unnamed U.S. expert on the Middle East" who had interviewed Israeli participants in the raid, has said that three days before the attack, a ship carrying material from North Korea labeled as cement had docked in the Syrian port of Tartusmarker. After the strike North Korea publicly condemned the raid. An Israeli on-line data analyst, Ronen Solomon, found an internet trace for the 1,700-tonne cargo ship, Al Hamed, which allegedly was docked at Tartus on September 3. By 2008-04-25 the ship was under the flag of Comorosmarker.

Several newspapers have reported that Iranian general Ali Reza Asgari, who disappeared in February in a possible defection to the West, supplied Western intelligence with information about the site which Israeli jets attacked.

Radar detection

According to Aviation Week and Space Technology, U.S. industry and military sources speculated that the Israelis may have used technology similar to America's Suter airborne network attack system to allow their planes to pass undetected by radar into Syria. This would make it possible to feed enemy radar emitters with false targets, and even directly manipulate enemy sensors. Syria is reported to have the new state-of-the art Pantsyr-S1E Russian SAM systems. However, the system had not been functional at that time. The Syrian air defense that was operational at that time was suspected to be the Tor-M1 and outdated Pechora-2A surface-to-air missiles.

Aviation Week and Space Technology later reported that Israeli aircraft actually engaged a Syrian radar site in Tall al-Abuad, both with conventional precision bombs, electronic attack, and brute force jamming. They added that prior to the raid, the U.S. gave Israel information on Syrian air defenses.

Target

Alleged Syrian nuclear reactor, after it was destroyed by Israeli air strike
CNN first reported that the airstrike targeted weapons "destined for Hezbollah militants" and that the strike "left a big hole in the desert". One week later, The Washington Post reported that U.S. and Israeli intelligence gathered information on a nuclear facility constructed in Syria with North Korean aid, and that the target was a "facility capable of making unconventional weapons". According to The Sunday Times, there were claims of a cache of nuclear materials from North Koreamarker.

Syrian Vice-President Faruq Al Shara announced on September 30 that the Israeli target was The Arab Center for the Studies of Arid Zones and Dry Lands, but the center itself immediately denied this. The following day Syrian President Bashar al-Assad described the bombing target as an "incomplete and empty military complex that was still under construction". He did not provide any further details about the nature of the structure or its purpose.

On 14 October The New York Times cited U.S. and Israeli military intelligence sources saying that the target had been a nuclear reactor under construction by North Korean technicians, with a number of the technicians having been killed in the strike. On December 2 The Sunday Times quoted Uzi Even, a professor at Tel Aviv Universitymarker and a founder of the Negev Nuclear Research Centermarker, saying that he believes that the Syrian site was built to process plutonium and assemble a nuclear bomb, using weapons-grade plutonium originally from North Korea. He also said that Syria's quick burial of the target site with tons of soil was a reaction to fears of radiation.

On March 19, 2009, Hans Ruehle, former chief of the planning staff of the German Defense Ministry, wrote in the Swissmarker daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung that Iran was financing a Syrian nuclear reactor. Ruehle did not identify the sources of his information. He wrote that U.S. intelligence had detected North Korean ship deliveries of construction supplies to Syria that started in 2002, and that the construction was spotted by American satellites in 2003, who detected nothing unusual, partly because the Syrians had banned radio and telephones from the site and handled communications solely by messengers. He said that "The analysis was conclusive that it was a North Korean-type reactor, a gas graphite model" and that "Israel estimates that Iran had paid North Korea between $1 billion and $2 billion for the project". He also wrote that just before the Israeli operation, a North Korean ship was intercepted en route to Syria with nuclear fuel rods.

Israeli official statements

The first report about the raid came from CNN. Israel initially did not comment on the incident, although Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did say that "The security services and Israeli defence forces are demonstrating unusual courage. We naturally cannot always show the public our cards." Israeli papers were banned from doing their own reporting on the airstrike. On September 16 the head of Israeli military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, told a parliamentary committee that Israel regained its "deterrent capability".

The first public acknowledgment by an Israeli official came on September 19 when opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu said that he had backed the operation and congratulated Prime Minister Olmert. Netanyahu advisor Uzi Arad later told Newsweek "I do know what happened, and when it comes out it will stun everyone."

On September 17 Prime Minister Olmert announced that he was ready to make peace with Syria "without preset conditions and without ultimatums". According to a poll done by the Dahaf Research Institute, Olmert's approval rating rose from 25% to 35% after the airstrike.

On October 2, 2007 the IDF confirmed the attack took place, following a request by Haaretz to lift censorship; however, the IDF continued to censor details of the actual strike force and its target.

Amir Oren, an Israeli journalist publishing in Haaretz opined "we can safely say that behind the successful blackout campaign lies an enormous failure" namely the failure to provoke Assad into a military response: "whoever expected him to respond to the operation in a military operation was wrong".

On October 28, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet that he had apologized to Turkishmarker Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan if Israel violated Turkish airspace. In a statement released to the press after the meeting he said: "In my conversation with the Turkish prime minister, I told him that if Israeli planes indeed penetrated Turkish airspace, then there was no intention thereby, either in advance or in any case, to — in any way — violate or undermine Turkish sovereignty, which we respect."

Syrian reaction

Photographs of the Syrian site before and after the strike.
Syria at first claimed that its anti-aircraft weapons had fired at Israeli planes, which bombed empty areas in the desert, or later, a military construction site. During the two days following the attack, Turkishmarker media reported finding Israeli fuel tanks in Hataymarker and Gaziantep Provincemarker, and the Turkish Foreign Minister lodged a formal protest with the Israeli envoy.

In a letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, Syria called the incursion a "breach of airspace of the Syrian Arab Republic" and said "it is not the first time Israel has violated" Syrian airspace. Syria also accused the international community of ignoring Israeli actions. A U.N. spokesperson said Syria had not requested a meeting of the UN Security Council and Francemarker, at the time the president of the Security Council, said it had received no letter from Syria.

On April 27, 2008 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, making his first public comments about the raid, dismissed the allegations that it was a nuclear site which was attacked as false: "Is it logical? A nuclear site did not have protection with surface to air defenses? A nuclear site within the footprint of satellites in the middle of Syria in an open area in the desert?" Independent experts, however, suggested that Syria did not fortify its suspected reactor in order to avoid drawing attention and because the building was not yet operational. Besides a nuclear program, Syria is believed to have extensive arsenals, as well as biological and chemical warheads for its long-range missiles. On February 25, 2009, IAEA officials reported that Ibrahim Othman, Syria's nuclear chief, told a closed IAEA technical meeting it held that Syria built a missile facility on the site.

International reactions and lack thereof

No Arab government besides Syria has formally commented on the September 6 incident. The Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram commented on the "synchronized silence of the Arab world." Neither the Israeli nor Syrian government has offered a detailed description of what occurred. Outside experts and media commentators have filled the data vacuum by offering their own diverse interpretations about what precisely happened that night. Western commentators took the position that the lack of official non-Syrian Arab condemnations of Israel's action, threats of retaliation against Israel, or even professions of support for the Syrian government or people must imply that their governments tacitly supported the Israeli action. Even Iranian officials have not formally commented on the Israeli attack or Syria's reactions.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was asked if North Korea was helping Syria in the nuclear realm, but replied only that "we are watching the North Koreans very carefully. We watch the Syrians very carefully."

The DPRK government strongly condemned Israel's actions: "This is a very dangerous provocation little short of wantonly violating the sovereignty of Syria and seriously harassing the regional peace and security."

On October 17, in reaction to the UN press office's release of a First Committee, Disarmament and International Security meeting's minutes that paraphrased an unnamed Syrian representative as saying that a nuclear facility was hit by the raid, Syria denied the statement, adding that "such facilities do not exist in Syria." However state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said that media reports had misquoted the Syrian diplomat.

On the same day, the IAEA's Mohamed ElBaradei criticized the raid, saying that to bomb first and ask questions later "undermines the system and it doesn't lead to any solution to any suspicion." The IAEA had been observing the disabling of the DPRK Yongbyon nuclear facilitiesmarker since July 2007, and was responsible for the containment and surveillance of the fuel rods and other nuclear materials from there.

The New York Times on October 26 published satellite photographs showing that the Syrians had almost entirely removed all remains of the facility. U.S. intelligence sources noted that such an operation would usually take a year's time, and expressed astonishment at the speed with which it was carried out. Former weapons inspector David Albright believed that the work was meant to hide evidence of wrongdoing.

The U.S. House Resolution 674, introduced on September 24, 2007, expressed “unequivocal support” ... “for Israel’s right to self defense in the face of an imminent nuclear or military threat from Syria.”

On April 28, 2008, CIA Director Michael Hayden said that a suspected Syrian reactor bombed by Israel had the capacity to produce enough nuclear material to fuel one to two weapons a year, and that it was of a "similar size and technology" to North Koreamarker's Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Centermarker.

Release of intelligence

On October 10, 2007 The New York Times reported that the Israelis had shared the Syrian strike dossier with Turkey. In turn the Turks traveled to Damascus and confronted the Syrians with the dossier alleging a nuclear program. Syria denied this with vigor saying that the target was a storage depot for strategic missiles. On October 25, 2007 The New York Times reported that two commercial satellite photos taken before and after the raid showed that a square building no longer exists at the suspected site. On October 27, 2007 The New York Times reported that the imaging company Geoeye released an image of the building from September 16, 2003, and from this security analyst John Pike estimated that construction began in 2001. "A senior intelligence official" also told The New York Times that the U.S. has observed the site for years by spy satellite. Subsequent searches of satellite imagery discovered that an astronaut aboard the International Space Station had taken a picture of the area on September 5, 2002. The image, though of low resolution, is good enough to show that the building existed as of that date.

The IAEA began an investigation of the nuclear allegations against Syria, but as of mid-November 2007 had not received the cooperation of either Israel or the United States. The IAEA has seen commercial satellite images of the suspected target, but could not confirm whether or not it was a nuclear facility. Some IAEA experts claimed it was "no more than a workshop for the pumice mining industry along the banks of the Euphrates".

On January 11, 2008, DigitalGlobe released a satellite photo showing that a building similar to the suspected target of the attack had been rebuilt in the same location. However, an outside expert said that it was unlikely to be a reactor and could be cover for excavation of the old site. On April 1, 2008 Asahi Shimbun reported that Ehud Olmert told Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda during a meeting on February 27 that the target of the strike was "nuclear-related facility that was under construction with know-how and assistance from North Korean technicians dispatched by Pyongyang." On April 24, 2008, the CIA released a video and background briefing, which it claims shows similarities between the North Korean nuclear reactor in Yongbyon and the one in Syria which was bombed by Israel. According to a U.S. official, there did not appear to be any uranium at the reactor, and although it was almost completed, it could not have been declared operational without significant testing.

A statement from the White House Press Secretary on April 24, 2008 followed the briefing given to some Congressional committees that week. According to the statement, the administration believed that Syria had been building a covert reactor with North Korean assistance that was capable of producing plutonium, and that the purpose was non-peaceful. It was also stated that the IAEA was being briefed with the intelligence. The IAEA confirmed receipt of the information, and planned to investigate. It was critical of not being informed earlier, and described the unilateral use of force as "undermining the due process of verification".

Syrian officials, however, denied any North Korean involvement in their country. According to the BBC, Syria's ambassador to the UK, Sami Khiyami, dismissed the allegations as ridiculous. "We are used to such allegations now, since the day the United States has invaded Iraq - you remember all the theatrical presentations concerning the WMDs weapons of mass destruction in Iraq." Mr Khiyami said the facility was a deserted military building that had "nothing to do with a reactor".

Initial skepticism about the US and Israeli claims

Despite the release of intelligence information from the American and Israeli sources, the attack on the Syrian site was controversial. Some commentators have argued that at the time of the attack the site had no obvious barbed wire or air defenses that would normally ring a sensitive military facility. Mohammed ElBaradei had previously stated that Syria's ability to construct and run a complex nuclear process was doubtful - speaking ahead of the IAEA inspection of the alleged Syrian nuclear site, which has been demolished, he said: "It is doubtful we will find anything there now, assuming there was anything in the first place." The New York Times reported that after the publishing of US intelligence data on April 24, "two senior intelligence officials acknowledged that the evidence had left them with no more than “low confidence” that Syria was preparing to build a nuclear weapon. However, while they said that there was no sign that Syria had built an operation to convert the spent fuel from the plant into weapons-grade plutonium, they had told President Bush last year that they could think of no other explanation for the reactor." BBC Diplomatic Correspondent Jonathan Marcus commented on the release of the CIA video that "Briefings about alleged weapons of mass destruction programmes have a lot to live down in the wake of the US experience in Iraq".

IAEA investigation

According to preliminary reports released on September 20, 2008 tests made by the International Atomic Energy Agencymarker (IAEA) have shown nothing to support the allegations of the United Statesmarker or Israelmarker that the destroyed target was a nuclear facility. The US has demanded that IAEA release more details of the probe. IAEA Director Mohammed ElBaradei has said the agency needs more time to prepare a report. He has also showed dissatisfaction to the United States and Israel for only providing the IAEA with photos of the destroyed facility in Syria after the Israeli Air Force bombed it out. He pointed out that the photos only show destroyed buildings, but "It is very difficult for us to find out the facts after the destruction of this building." On October 28, 2008, anonymous diplomats leaked that the IAEA's final evaluation justified further investigation.

On November 10, Reuters revealed leaks by unnamed western diplomats stating that U.N. investigators had found traces of "man-made" uranium at the Syrian site, though it did not suffice to make a conclusion on Syrian activity.On November 17, 2008, ElBaradei confirmed these previous leaks.

On November 19, IAEA released a report2008/60> which said the Syrian complex bore features resembling those of an undeclared nuclear reactor and U.N. inspectors found "significant" traces of uranium at the site. The report said the findings gleaned from inspectors' visit to the site in June were not enough to conclude a reactor was once there. It said further investigation and greater Syrian transparency were needed. The confidential nuclear safeguards report said Syria would be asked to show to inspectors debris and equipment whisked away from the site after the September 2007 Israeli air raid.

On February 19, 2009, the IAEA reported that samples taken from the site revealed new traces of processed uranium. A senior UN official said additional analysis of the June find had found 40 more uranium particles, for a total of 80 particles, and described it as significant. He added that experts were analyzing minute traces of graphite and stainless steel found at and near the site, but said that it was too early to relate them to nuclear activity. The report noted Syria's refusal to allow agency inspectors to make follow-up visits to sites suspected of harboring a secret nuclear program despite repeated requests from top agency officials. Syria disputed these claims. According to Syria's IAEA representative Othman, there would have been a large amount of graphite had the building been a nuclear reactor. Othman continued, "They found 80 particles in half a million tonnes of soil. I don't know how you can use that figure to accuse somebody of building such a facility."

References

See also



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