Making Sense of Israel's Raid Into Syria The mystery deepens about Israel's alleged air raid into Syria last month. A series of satellite photos released in the last few weeks that might — or might not — shed some light on the mystery.
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Making Sense of Israel's Raid Into Syria

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Making Sense of Israel's Raid Into Syria

Making Sense of Israel's Raid Into Syria

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This is DAY TO DAY.

Coming up, a San Francisco neighborhood with a case for the outrageous, but for Halloween tonight everyone's supposed to stay home.

I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

First, to the deepening mystery about Israel's alleged air raid into Syria last month.

A series of satellite photos have come to light in recent days that may or may not show what might or might not be a Syrian nuclear facility that Israel could or could not have bombed last month.

NPR diplomatic correspondent Mike Shuster is here to make sense of what we know and don't know.

Mike, I see deepening mystery. It's already so deep. How can it get much deeper?

SHUSTER: Making sense of it is very difficult, Alex. The only thing that we really do know is that the Israelis did mount an air strike on a target in Syria, somewhere in the eastern desert of Syria on September 6th.

Beyond that, actually, it's all been speculation, speculation that has dribbled out from alleged Israeli and perhaps American intelligence reports about what the site was. It took weeks to focus on what the - what was actually in these alleged intelligence reports. It's - now it appears that the intelligence reports say that it was something having to do with nuclear activity. Beyond that, we don't know really anything about this.

CHADWICK: But I hear the two words North Korea attached to this.

SHUSTER: Yeah. Well, if you attach North Korea to almost any allegation about nuclear activity anywhere in the world, it certainly gets much more attention, and in fact the alleged Israeli intelligence accounts suggested that there might be some kind of a North Korean link, which apparently got the attention of the Bush administration.

CHADWICK: And what about these satellite photos? Now, there have been a series of them.

SHUSTER: Very interesting. Now, we're talking here about commercial satellite imagery that is in the public domain, and some pictures of a site in Syria near the Euphrates River surfaced in August, and then in late October the same site, and in August, there was some kind of construction going on. There was a large square building. In late October there was nothing there. It had been erased. So this focused attention on whether this really was the site the Israelis had bombed because something had happened to remove the construction that had been there before.

But what we didn't see was satellite imagery from right after September 6th, in the week or 10 days afterwards, which if it had been rubble could have confirmed that there was an Israeli attack and might have given some hints as to what's inside that large building, because we have no public information about what's inside that building or what was inside that building.

CHADWICK: You know, I've seen these photographs, or at least a couple of them. Some expert on the subject said that building looks like it could be a North Korean nuclear sort of building; and I looked at the thing, I said come on, it's a square building. What is...

SHUSTER: I mean, you're exactly right. There is a building that looks like it in Yangbian in North Korea, where there is a nuclear reactor inside North Korea.

But without actual pictures from inside or after the strike before the site was cleaned up, there can't be any definitive determination that this was a nuclear reactor, let alone that it was a nuclear reactor along the lines of a model that the North Koreans might have provided for Syria.

CHADWICK: Okay. Now, these photographs that you're talking about, these are photographs from quite recent past, going back to August. But suddenly people are talking about yet another satellite photograph, also commercial satellite photograph, I think, that goes back years.

SHUSTER: That's right. To 2003. It turns out that there was a photograph of this site in the public domain in 2003, which suggests that construction started there in 2003. And what we've actually learned since that time is that there was intelligence analysis on the part of the U.S. intelligence community about that site in 2003. And the analysts were skeptical that this had anything to do with nuclear activity on the part of Syria.

So this raises the question as to just how good the Israeli interpretation was four years later.

CHADWICK: Well, what is going on in the background that we're not hearing? What are diplomats saying about this? What's the intelligence community saying about this? It's been, what, six weeks now since the alleged raid. What's going on?

SHUSTER: Well, the fundamental question is what was this for? Was this really to destroy a nuclear capability on the part of the Syrians or to send a signal to Iran? And that's what really everybody is talking about, whether the clock is ticking on an Israeli - potential Israeli attack on nuclear sites in Iran.

CHADWICK: NPR diplomatic correspondent Mike Shuster. Mike, thank you.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Alex.

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