Mystery Surrounds Israeli Strike in Syria

Israeli jets bombed a target in Syria in a night raid on Sept. 6. Unnamed Israeli and U.S. intelligence sources tell journalists the attack was prompted by possible nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Syria. Experts familiar with Syria's nuclear activities have their doubts.

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Mystery continued to swirl around an Israeli air strike in Syria that took place in the middle of the night on September 6th. Neither Israel nor Syria nor the United States has offered an explanation of why Israel hit Syria or what the target was. But that hasn't stopped the speculation, which is focused on an alleged Syrian-North Korean nuclear connection.

Here's NPR's Mike Shuster.

MIKE SHUSTER: Nothing about Israel's air strike on Syria is known for sure. It's not clear how many aircraft were involved nor the route they used to reach their target nor where the target itself was. The target has been reported to be near the Syrian town of Deir ez-Zor in Syria's eastern dessert. But there are also reports the Israeli attack aircraft jettisoned their empty gas tanks over Turkey more than a hundred miles north.

Anonymous American and Israeli intelligence sources have been quoted wildly speculating on the motive for the attack. Among the possible reasons: The site could have held missiles from Iran destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon, the attack could have been a warm-up or a warning for a possible Israeli attack on Iran, or the Israelis believe there was some kind of nuclear cooperation underway between North Korea and Syria.

U.S. government officials have declined to discuss the matter, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates was asked about it on "FOX News Sunday."

(Soundbite of show "FOX News Sunday")

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): All I will say is we are watching the North Koreans very carefully. We watch the Syrians very carefully.

SHUSTER: Gates' hinted he is taking the story quite seriously.

Sec. GATES: If such an activity were taking place, it would be a matter of great concern, and because the president has put down a very strong marker with the North Koreans about further proliferation efforts. And, obviously, any effort by the Syrians to pursue weapons of mass destruction would be a concern.

SHUSTER: Israel's leaders have offered no explanation for the attack, but a few days ago, it emerged that according to unnamed Israeli sources, the air strike occurred three days after a North Korean ship docked at the Port of Tartous in Syria and offloaded its cargo. Damascus has also been largely silent about the matter. But this week, Syrian government minister Buthaina Shaaban did comment on the allegations of nuclear cooperation with North Korea.

Dr. BUTHAINA SHAABAN (Minister of Expatriate Affairs, Syria): Syria denies anything of the kind and condemns the Israeli attack on our land, on violation of all our airspace. And it's amazing that it's Washington who explains to the world why did Israel do this attack on Syria.

SHUSTER: Syria is not believed to have nuclear weapons or a nuclear weapons program, but it is known there are small experimental nuclear activities underway there. North Korea is not known to have cooperated with Syria in the nuclear field, but it has worked extensively with Syria on missile technology. North Korea has sold Scud missiles to Syria. North Korean missile specialists are known to have been in Syria and Syrian missile experts have traveled to North Korea.

Joe Cirincione, an expert on nuclear proliferation with the Center for American Progress, has serious doubts about the veracity of the story so far.

Dr. JOSEPH CIRINCIONE (Expert on Nuclear Proliferation, Center for American Progress): This is the most overblown story I've seen since before the buildup to the war in Iraq. There's precious little information available, but it hasn't stop people with political agendas from spinning it at such an absurd level as if these claims are facts.

SHUSTER: The story may have been a factor in postponing a meeting this week of the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program. That was expected to take place today in Beijing, but the Chinese government abruptly canceled it on Monday. Cirincione says some in Israel as well are also using the air strike story to affect possible future talks with Syria.

Dr. CIRINCIONE: Certain hard-line Israelis who are aimed at preventing a U.S.-Syrian or an Israeli-Syrian dialogue.

SHUSTER: That appears to have been a concern of Israel's president, Shimon Peres, yesterday when he told the foreign press corps that the nervousness, as he put it, between Syria and Israel is over.

President SHIMON PERES (Israel): So I'll go back to the almost and speculations and so on. When we say clearly that we are ready to negotiate directly with the Syrians caucus(ph).

SHUSTER: But today, another story surfaced about Syria that could complicate matters further. Jane's Defence Weekly is reporting that an explosion in the chemical plant in Syria on July 26th actually resulted from efforts to put chemical warheads on scud missiles. At the time, Syria's official news agency reported 15 military personnel were killed in the blast. The magazine reported that Iranian experts there were also killed.

Syria's chemical weapons program has been well known says Robert Einhorn, a former assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation issues now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Dr. ROBERT EINHORN (Senior Adviser, International Security Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies): Syria has a chemical weapons capability. In fact, quite an advanced chemical weapons capability for the Middle East.

SHUSTER: That explosion occurred in Aleppo in western Syria. The Israeli air strike occurred about 200 miles east, but near an area where Syria is known to test missiles.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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