Israel Admits: We Attacked and Destroyed the Syrian Nuclear Reactor

Top row: The site before the attack (L), yellow circles depicting bombs during the air strike on the site (R). Bottom row: An explosion during the air strike on the site (L), debris seen on the site after the attack (R). (IDF/Handout via Reuters)

Only 11 years have passed since Israeli air force planes attacked the nuclear reactor that President Assad built in Dir a Zour, yet Yerushalayim has decided to go public with the operation, which throughout this time was considered a state secret. Now it can be revealed that for months, Israel knew about the construction of the reactor, and held talks with President Bush, in the hope that he would do the job, but he refused and just said: “I have no problem if you do it.” Then a fierce dispute broke out in the Israeli cabinet, when then-Prime Minister Olmert led the supporters of the attack against then-Defense Minister Barak, who did everything to thwart it. But when Barak realized that the decision had been made despite his objections, he halfheartedly joined the supporters.

As of this morning, the story is out of the box.

Defense authorities in Israel decided to lift the veil that had covered Operation Out of the Box, and Yerushalayim thus affirmed that it had been the one to attack and destroy the Syrian nuclear reactor 11 years ago. This is a story that, until today, was under a total media blackout, save for the very barest of details.

Since this morning, everyone has been busy discussing it, and these conversations will continue at length, with both positive and negative viewpoints.

It happened before dawn on September 6, 2007. Seven Israeli fighter planes penetrated Syrian territory and reached the site where Syrian workers were constructing a nuclear reactor, the first of its kind. The planes dropped dozens of precision missiles with heavy warheads on the entire complex, destroying all the structures they were sent to raze. The operation was, b’chasdei Shamayim, a resounding success. The head of the intelligence department in those days, General Amos Yadlin, himself a fighter pilot with a stellar history and one of the leaders of the fleet of planes that destroyed the Iraqi reactor, reported together with the commander of the Air Force at the time, General Eliezer Shkedi, to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: “Executed successfully – everyone is safe and on the way home.”

Then, like now, the Syrians woke up late and began to fire missiles at the planes. But by then, the planes were already very close to the base from where they had taken off. They landed safely, one after the other, but not before they flew some “somersaults” in the air, a tradition among those who are sent for risky missions and return successfully.

An extensive intelligence effort, which began at the end of 2004, and included cooperation of parallel defense entities, reaped a lot of significant information, which ultimately grew into an accurate air strike. The IDF prepared to attack the reactor, targeting with great precision, and at the same time, it prepared for a possible escalation of violence in the region that could result.

The Chief of General Staff at the time, Brig.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, said with regard to the reactor’s destruction: “As soon as the Prime Minister tasked the IDF, under my leadership, with the responsibility for destroying the nuclear reactor in Syria, it was clear to me that we had to prepare tactically, on the intelligence front and technologically to eradicate the nuclear threat over Israel and the region, and at the same time, to carry out operations to prevent an escalation into war, and if war would be forced on us – we had to know how to win it.”

The current Chief of General Staff, Brig.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who served as the chief of Northern Command at the time of Operation Out of the Box, said this week: “The message from the attack on the reactor in 2007 is that the State of Israel will not come to terms with the construction of an ability that will pose an existential threat to it. That was the message in 2007, and it is the message to our enemies in the near future and further ahead as well.”

The operation was heavily cloaked in secrecy. The initial information about the Syrian preparation to build the reactor came, it should be noted, only a few years after President Assad decided to go in that direction. Some say three years passed from when the decision was made in Damascus, and some go so far as to say that Israel learned about Assad’s intentions incidentally five years after the reactor was already in progress.

Many commissions of inquiry dealt with the question of how it happened that despite the extensive intelligence information that Israel had about Syria, the details about the nuclear reactor somehow did not show up. Military sources asked about it over the years explained that the decision was made in Damascus by the president, and several individuals who were close to him, and they didn’t even bring the senior army officials into the picture.

The actual construction work was carried out by workers who themselves did not know what exactly they were building. They were not allowed to bring cell phones or any other electronic devices to the construction site. Working alongside the workers were North Korean engineers who brought with them plans of a nuclear reactor that they built in their own land. They followed that plan almost like a copy-paste.

Were the Iranians also in the picture? According to all testimonies shared after the fact, the answer is that they were. The reactor plans may have been North Korean, but the funding came from Teheran.

In a debate that will develop beginning today, the question will surely arise about how exactly Israel learned that Syria was building the nuclear reactor. The Mossad and those who were close to the then-head, Gen. (Res.) Meir Dagan, will continue to claim that they were the ones who discovered the secret and first exposed it.

Many in the defense department reject this out of hand. In their opinion, Israel, like the West, learned about the reactor from the testimony of an Iranian nuclear scientist who defected and fled Iran, and then Turkey and from there traveled to another country. To this day there are rumors that he continued to the United States, after first coordinating his arrival with the American intelligence agencies. Others linked the defector to Israel.

Either way, from the minute the construction of the Syrian reactor became known, all spotlights of Israeli intelligence, especially from the air, focused on it. But they were not only focused on the site, whose construction continued apace. Satellite photos taken from above North Korea showed aerial images of the North Korean nuclear reactor, and it became clear that there was nearly complete coordination between the reactor going up in Syria and one of the Korean reactors, near the capital of North Korea.

From the day that it became clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that what the Syrians were building was a nuclear reactor, the countdown to the operation began. First, intelligence was gathered, like a large, complex puzzle, and almost every day a few more details were added until the full picture became clear.

The operation was planned by two pilots, Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, who was in those days the head of the Intelligence Department, and his colleague, Air Force commander Gen. Eliezer Shkedi. On the day of the operation, they dispatched 10 F-15I planes, accompanied by 12 F-16I planes to provide aerial cover. Above them flew a plane for electronic warfare, whose crew coordinated the entire operation, and in which sat some of the commanders of the operation.

Initially, seven of the planes were able to destroy an important Syrian radar station on the way, which scrambled the entire Syrian aerial defense, and prevented it from seeing the Israeli planes drawing near to the attack site. The Israeli fighters on the ground helped the planes hone in on the target, and they were able to fire their payload of dozens of missiles with maximum accuracyat all the targets.

The soldiers on the ground quickly folded up shop and headed back to Israel, while at the same time the attack planes continued northward to Turkish territory, and on the way, they dumped the empty fuel tanks that had served them on the flight to the target site.

The Syrians hurried to accuse Israel of the attack. Israel did not react and maintained absolutely ambiguity. Anyone in Israel who had to know about the attack knew. President Assad also realized in the clearest fashion who had attacked him, and what it had caused him. All his plans were up in smoke. The buildings under construction were destroyed completely. One structure was only damaged—but while it remained standing it was no longer usable.

The Americans also maintained silence, even though they knew about the planned Israeli operation. Before the attack, the prime minister at the time, Ehud Olmert, traveled to President George Bush, and the two, together with a handful of advisors, held a secret discussion regarding the Syrian nuclear threat. Olmert hoped to go back to Israel with an American promise that it would be the one to attack the Syrian reactor, thus precluding the danger of a Syrian retaliation against Israel, which could have brought about war between the two nations.
But Olmert returned partially disappointed. He was disappointed by President Bush’s refusal to activate the American army against the reactor, but he was pleased to hear the president telling him, “We won’t attack, but America doesn’t object if you do so.”

But then, when he returned to Israel, Olmert discovered that while he was pushing for a quick operation, he was facing a nucleus of defense officials who were against it, headed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Mossad, and others who believed that the mission would be dangerous to Israel and would lead to a conflict with the Syrian army, and perhaps even with Hizbullah, backed by Iran.

Olmert did not desist, especially when the Chief of General Staff Ashkenazi took his side and encouraged the operation.

Ultimately, the operation was presented to the cabinet, where Olmert and Ashkenazi’s approach received an almost unanimous majority, leaving Barak alone on the opposition front. When he realized that this was the case, he asked for another vote, and he switched sides and joined the supporters.

Hamodia’s military correspondent notes that the conflict between Barak, who opposed the operation, and Ashkenazi, one of its most ardent supporters, is what led to the harsh clash between them that affected the entire defense system.

According to foreign reports, Israel completed the offense against the reactor and its planners about a year after the actual reactor was destroyed, when Israeli agents assassinated Muhammad Suleiman, a senior advisor to President Assad. He was the one in charge of the ties with North Korea on everything relating to the construction of the reactor. Suleiman was Assad’s greatest confidant and maintained his silence, and was also very careful with every step he took. Nevertheless, the foreign sources said, Israel succeeded in getting to him through a sniper who shot a single bullet into his head from afar.

In an interview that former Defense Minister Amir Peretz gave less than 24 hours after it happened, he told reporters that “if indeed such an operation was carried out, as the Syrians claim, I imagine that it was necessary.” He didn’t say anything more. American Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice confirmed in Washington that the Syrians had indeed been building a nuclear reactor and that Israel had been the one to bombard and destroy it and “I support the Israeli move.” Two weeks later, the then-opposition leader in Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, told a media interview that he knows that indeed there was a successful operation carried out in Syrian territory, and “I gave it my full blessing.”

Military Intelligence director Gen. Amos Yadlin, who met with the members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee a few days after the operation said: “The Israeli deterrence has been restored since the Second Lebanon War and that influences the entire regional map, including Iran and Syria.” He didn’t detail what had led to the restoration of that deterrence, but all the members of the committee who were aware of the operation connected the two.

A year ago, a decade after the operation, the head of the National Security Research Institute, Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, who was head of MI during the operation, gave an interview to Israel media. He refused to state clearly if Israel was the one that had attacked in Syria, but his words during the interview said it all, when he made it clear to his interviewers that “the fact that Israel knew in 1981 to make a decision to destroy Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in Iraq, and according to foreign sources a Syrian reactor received from North Korea, shows that there were leaders who knew how to make decisions.”

In response to the question of whether he was the one to first update the Americans that the Syrians were building a reactor, Yadlin replied evasively. “According to books that I read from the memoirs of then President Bush and then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Americans were in on the matter. There was a deliberation between Israel and the United States. Perhaps diplomacy was the right strategy? That would have meant going to the Security Council and imposing sanctions, which was more or less the American proposal. On the other hand there was the opinion in some places that they had to take advantage of the fact that the ones building the reactor didn’t know that it had been discovered and finish the project in a different way.”

Right after the Israeli operation in Syria, fears arose that President Assad, who had sustained a serious blow, might look for ways to react with his own painful blow. In order to prevent that, it was decided to cast a blackout on the entire operation. All the media outlets were summoned to receive clarifications as to why it was decided to put a blackout on the whole thing, and at the same time, the Israeli leadership launched a series of international diplomatic measures that were meant to offer Pres. Assad proposals to…return the Golan Heights in exchange for a full peace agreement. The one who played a central role in transmitting diplomatic messages to Assad was none other than the Turkish Prime Minister at the time, Tayyip Erdogan, who then still had very close ties with Israel and offered to soothe Assad on its behalf.

The diplomatic efforts succeeded and Pres. Assad calmed down. He began to make declarations that his country had gotten Israel to agree to a complete return of the Golan Heights.

Israel continued with the blackout policy for the past 11 years. Until this morning. Until the day came when they decided that the secret could be revealed.