Thanks to Josh Landis for finding this blog post by Gordon Lichfield, The Economist’s Jerusalem correspondent, which precisely mirrors my own skepticism about the Syrian nuclear story being spread around the world media by U.S. and Israeli hawks. I quote a great deal of his post because it is so precisely on target and these words need to be read not just by my readers but by anyone interested in Mideast peace:
The story taking hold is that Israel hit material or equipment for nuclear weapons supplied by North Korea. But something still smells fishy.
For a start…today it’s Britain’s Sunday Times which carries it forward, with a lot of enticing details from unnamed Israeli sources about how an Israeli commando unit on the ground guided the bombers; how the Mossad found “evidence that Syria was seeking to buy a nuclear device from North Korea”; how Israel diverted a spy satellite from Iran to Syria; and, interestingly, how the mysterious rise in Israel-Syria sabre-rattling a few weeks ago – which I wrote about in my very first post – was actually the result of Israel’s sending more troops to the Golan “in anticipation of possible retaliation by Damascus in the event of air strikes.”
So, first question: why the Sunday Times? Letting details of the attack leak via Washington last week may have been a way to prevent a flare-up between Israel and Syria or other Arab states. But if Israeli officials have decided that it’s now safe to break silence, why not in the Israeli press?
Second question: is it true? Uzi Mahnaimi, the Sunday Times’s man in Tel Aviv, is a former Mossad man known for having excellent security sources. But as I’ve discussed before, journalists in that position are also susceptible to being fed misinformation and printing it, knowingly or otherwise.
The operational details he reveals are probably accurate. The nukes claim, which seems to have been fed both to Uzi and to his Washington colleague, is more questionable. Newsweek today reports that, yes, Israel showed satellite photographs of northern Syria to officials in Washington, suggesting that they revealed a nuclear project; but that other anonymous US officials “say they’ve seen no credible evidence yet of nuclear ties between North Korea and Syria”.
So the alternative view going around is that this news cycle is all part of a big conspiracy by Washington hardliners – with ex-UN ambassador John Bolton at the fore – and Israel to push the Iran-Syria-North Korea connection, with the media gullibly playing along.
Thus, the Sunday Times cites Bolton saying that “I’ve been worried for some time about North Korea and Iran outsourcing their nuclear programmes,” but Newsweek gets him to admit that he “never saw proof North Korea was sharing nuclear technology with Syria.” Joshua Landis, who has also clipped several other useful pieces on this issue, lists reasons to think that Bolton is “shooting from the hip”, and Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy’s blog argues that
“If this sounds like the run-up to the war in Iraq, it should. This time it appears aimed at derailing the U.S.-North Korean agreement that administration hardliners think is appeasement. Some Israelis want to thwart any dialogue between the U.S. and Syria.”
I’m suspending judgment. Launching an air strike at Syria, especially if there were indeed ground commandos, was risky. It’s hard to imagine Israel would have done it just to lend credibility to a neocon claim about nukes or prevent US-Syria dialogue (if anything, Washington is even more sceptical of Syria’s intentions than Jerusalem is). An alternative hypothesis is that Israel really believed that Syria might have the hot stuff, but only because the neocons led Israel by the nose. But I still can’t figure out why keep the Israeli media muzzled, unless it’s just that they’re less likely than the US press to buy into the spin. At any rate, stay sceptical. Not everything is clear yet.