All Still Quiet on the Syria Bombing

By Jackson Diehl (THE WASHINGTON POST, 05/11/07):

It was two months ago tomorrow that Israeli warplanes bombed what Israel and the United States believed was a nascent Syrian nuclear complex along the shore of the Euphrates River. But the political shock waves that should have accompanied that remarkable event — which was both an audacious act of preemption and a revelation of an apparent Syrian bomb program— have been bottled up by the decisions of the Israeli government and the Bush administration not to speak publicly about the strike.

Now Israeli and U.S. officials are quietly debating whether to go on the record and allow those shock waves to explode across the Middle East and beyond. At stake are not only Israel’s tense relations with Syria, which so far has chosen not to retaliate, but a host of other pressure points: Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; the integrity of the International Atomic Energy Agency; Western leverage over Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad; and — not least — the fragile U.S. nuclear bargain with North Korea, which is believed to have aided the secret construction.

For the Israeli government of Ehud Olmert, the decision to suppress news of the strike in September — including the military censorship of Israel’s aggressively free press — was pretty straightforward. Trumpeting the successful attack not only would have prompted global denunciations of Israel but might have pushed Assad into launching an attack on the Golan Heights or a missile at Tel Aviv. The architect of the attack, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, is a former head of Israel’s most elite clandestine commando squad, and he remains convinced that military special operations are best kept secret.

Two months later that calculus hasn’t much changed. Barak and Olmert are still worried enough about a Syrian military response to have moved an upcoming military exercise off the Golan; Olmert and other senior officials have been dropping hints about opening political negotiations with Damascus. Olmert knows that full disclosure of the operation would probably blow up the Israeli-Palestinian peace meeting in Annapolis that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hopes to convene this month. Among other problems, Arab states that Olmert and Rice hope will attend would surely cancel if they were obliged to react to an event that they have so far pointedly ignored.

Outside Jerusalem and the State Department, however, pressure for an official account of the raid — or more important, for the intelligence that prompted it — is growing. The International Atomic Energy Agency and its freelancing director, Mohamed ElBaradei, want to investigate the alleged reactor site. The agency’s experts have been studying aerial photographs and asking U.S. officials for information. In theory, at least, an IAEA probe could compound the blow suffered by Assad by forcing him to explain — on pain of possible sanctions by the U.N. Security Council — whether and how Syria violated its commitments under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

So far the Bush administration has refused to cooperate with ElBaradei, who has all but openly sided with Iran in its attempt to deflect U.N. orders to freeze its uranium enrichment. Having debunked U.S. claims about a reborn Iraqi nuclear program in early 2003, ElBaradei would be certain to seize on any ambiguities in the Israeli and U.S. evidence about the Syrian reactor. If he raised doubts that the project was intended to produce plutonium, both Olmert and the Bush administration would be damaged.

There is, however, a petitioner much tougher to resist than the IAEA director: Republican representatives who are demanding that “every member of Congress be briefed on this incident, and as soon as possible,” as Reps. Peter Hoekstra and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen put it in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. The two House members were already briefed because of their positions as ranking minority members on the intelligence and Foreign Affairs committees; what they heard evidently convinced them that possible covert collaboration between Syria and North Korea needs to be fully aired and debated before the United States proceeds with negotiations to end North Korea’s bomb program.

Here some Bush administration officials are sympathetic. They have been frustrated by what they describe as the stubborn resistance of Rice to connect what was discovered in Syria to the North Korean disarmament talks. Rice’s North Korean point man, Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill, told Congress last month that Pyongyang had been asked to disclose any cooperation with Syria as part of a promised full report on its weapons programs.

If it answers the question, North Korea may end up blowing the whistle on Damascus. And if it chooses to lie? Then the pressure on the Bush administration to disclose what it knows about the Israeli raid may become irresistible.