Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Here We Go (Middle East Version)

Satellite imagery showing the Syrian site in August last year (L) and after its alleged evacuation by Syria, in October. (DigitalGlobe)

Looks like a U.S. Senate hearing on the IAF attack on Syria last year is in the cards. How this is spun will, in my opinion, be a strong signal of whether Israel is about to drop the hammer on Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, et al, or whether this has just been a period of rising tensions, like many other periods in the Middle East.

U.S. Senate to discuss N. Korea-Syria nuclear ties
By Amos Harel and Shmuel Rosner, Haaretz Correspondents
The American administration intends to give the Senate Intelligence Committee an account of the nuclear ties between North Korea and Syria for the first time on April 22.

Senior IDF officers have warned, however, that the release of any information containing details of the Israeli Air Force strike in Syria last September could increase tension between Israel and Syria. The meeting is expected to be held behind closed doors at Israel's insistence, but the Americans did not promise not to brief journalists afterward.

Media reports in the United States could alter the gag order Israel has imposed on Israeli media coverage of the IAF's strike in Syria.

Just a quick review of why I am still very, very skeptical of claims that Israel attacked a Syrian "nuclear" site:

  1. I am asked to believe that Syria thought it could build a nuclear reactor without the Israel intel services discovering it. I cannot believe this. You have to have lots of specialty equipment. Even in a basic reactor like the Yongbyon design that supposedly was provided Syria, you need nuclear-grade graphite, fuel and the controls to run it. Dictators can be delusional and they can be stupid, but to survive in the arena of Middle Eastern politics, you can't be totally delusional or else you will be very dead, very soon.
  2. It's not just the fact that I am asked to believe a nuclear reactor was being built, it's the fact that to use such a nuclear reactor as a way to generate Pu-239 for use as warhead material requires an enormous infrastructure. You have to be able to remove the used fuel (which is intensely radioactive), get it to a processing center where you will use large quantities of acids to break down the fuel and separate out the Pu-239. Well, to get Pu-239 in relevant amounts, you would have to run that reactor for at least 4-6 months, then go through an extensive industrial process to isolate the plutonium - all the while releasing radioactive gas into the atmosphere in quantities that can be measured by the many detection posts that cover the earth.
  3. Then, to make the plutonium useful, you have to work with the metal to get it cast into proper shape. Did I mention that plutonium is quite toxic and very difficult to work with when you have to machine parts to fine tolerances?
  4. Then you have to have a legitimate bomb design. You have supposedly got your reactor from the North Koreans. These jokers, who did have all the above as far as facilities, by the way, had a miserable failure of a bomb test a few years back. Even with all the advantages of infrastructure and a regime dedicated to the bomb effort, they failed. And I'm asked by the opinion-leaders to believe that Syria thinks they can use that same system and get better results? Riiiiight.
  5. Okay, there are also other options, I guess. Things like North Korea has provided finished plutonium or "dirty bomb" material. I guess that is possible, but again, we are back to the fact that if this supersensitive material was somehow shipped between two of the most scrutinized countries on earth - without detection - they then went and stored it in a light industrial building up near the Turkish border. Riiiiight.

Now, my skepticism aside, the Israelis don't just conduct raids for nothing. This one was well-planned and well-executed. I am still skeptical that anything nuclear was the point of it, but frankly, the Syrians are acting guilty of something. If that had just been an innocent storage shed, if I were Assad, I'd have opened up the entire area to IAEA inspection and invited every reporter in the region to inspect it.

There is so much going on right now in the Middle East that just is not playing out to the old scripts. I still think something big is coming down. That's why I am paying so much attention to this right now.

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