We came so close to World War Three that day

On 6 September, when Israel struck a nuclear facility in Syria

A meticulously planned, brilliantly executed surgical strike by Israeli jets on a nuclear installation in Syria on 6 September may have saved the world from a devastating threat. The only problem is that no one outside a tight-lipped knot of top Israeli and American officials knows precisely what that threat involved.

Even more curious is that far from pushing the Syrians and Israelis to war, both seem determined to put a lid on the affair. One month after the event, the absence of hard information leads inexorably to the conclusion that the implications must have been enormous.

That was confirmed to The Spectator by a very senior British ministerial source: ‘If people had known how close we came to world war three that day there’d have been mass panic. Never mind the floods or foot-and-mouth — Gordon really would have been dealing with the bloody Book of Revelation and Armageddon.’

According to American sources, Israeli intelligence tracked a North Korean vessel carrying a cargo of nuclear material labelled ‘cement’ as it travelled halfway across the world. On 3 September the ship docked at the Syrian port of Tartous and the Israelis continued following the cargo as it was transported to the small town of Dayr as Zawr, near the Turkish border in north-eastern Syria.

The destination was not a complete surprise. It had already been the subject of intense surveillance by an Israeli Ofek spy satellite, and within hours a band of elite Israeli commandos had secretly crossed into Syria and headed for the town. Soil samples and other material they collected there were returned to Israel. Sure enough, they indicated that the cargo was nuclear.

Three days after the North Korean consignment arrived, the final phase of Operation Orchard was launched. With prior approval from Washington, Israeli F151 jets were scrambled and, minutes later, the installation and its newly arrived contents were destroyed.

So secret were the operational details of the mission that even the pilots who were assigned to provide air cover for the strike jets had not been briefed on it until they were airborne. In the event, they were not needed: built-in stealth technology and electronic warfare systems were sophisticated enough to ‘blind’ Syria’s Russian-made anti-aircraft systems.

What was in the consignment that led the Israelis to mount an attack which could easily have spiralled into an all-out regional war? It could not have been a transfer of chemical or biological weapons; Syria is already known to possess the most abundant stockpiles in the region. Nor could it have been missile delivery systems; Syria had previously acquired substantial quantities from North Korea. The only possible explanation is that the consignment was nuclear.

The scale of the potential threat — and the intelligence methods that were used to follow the transfer — explain the dense mist of official secrecy that shrouds the event. There have been no official briefings, no winks or nudges, from any of the scores of people who must have been involved in the preparation, analysis, decision-making and execution of the operation. Even when Israelis now offer a firm ‘no comment’, it is strictly off the record. The secrecy is itself significant.

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Israel is a small country. In some respects, it resembles an extended, if chaotic, family. Word gets around fast. Israelis have lived on the edge for so long they have become addicted to the news. Israel’s media is far too robust and its politicians far too leaky to allow secrets to remain secret for long. Even in the face of an increasingly archaic military censor, Israeli journalists have found ways to publish and, if necessary, be damned.

The only conceivable explanation for this unprecedented silence is that the event was so huge, and the implications for Israeli national security so great, that no one has dared break the rule of omertà. The Arab world has remained conspicuously — and significantly — silent. So, too, have American officials, who might have been expected to ramp up the incident as proof of their warnings about the dangers of rogue states and WMDs. The opposite is true. George Bush stonewalled persistent questions at a press conference last week with the blunt statement: ‘I’m not going to comment on the matter.’ Meanwhile the Americans have carried on dealing with the North Koreans as if nothing has changed.

The Syrian response, when it eventually came, was more forthcoming but no more helpful. First out of the blocks was Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja’afari, who happily announced that nothing had been bombed in Syria and nothing had been damaged.

One week later, Syria’s Vice-President, Farouk a-Shara, agreed that there had, after all, been an attack — on the Arab Centre for the Studies (sic) of Arid Zones and Dry Lands (ACSAD). Brandishing a photograph of the Arab League-run plant, he declared triumphantly: ‘This is the picture, you can see it, and it proves that everything that was said about this attack was wrong.’

Well, perhaps not everything. The following day, ACSAD issued a statement denying that its centre had been targeted: ‘Leaks in the Zionist media concerning this ACSAD station are total inventions and lies,’ it thundered, adding that a tour of the centre was being organised for the media.

On Monday, Syria’s President, Bashar Assad, offered his first observations of the attack. The target, he told the BBC disingenuously, was an unused military building. And he followed that with vows to retaliate, ‘maybe politically, maybe in other ways’.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post noted that the United States had accumulated a growing body of evidence over the past six months — and particularly in the month leading up to the attack — that North Korea was co-operating with Syria on developing a nuclear facility. The evidence, according to the paper, included ‘dramatic satellite imagery that led some US officials to believe the facility could be used to produce material for nuclear weapons’. Even within America’s intelligence community, access to that imagery was restricted to just a handful of individuals on the instructions of America’s National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley.

Why are all sides so reluctant to clarify the details of this extraordinary event? ‘In the Middle East,’ noted Bret Stephens, a senior editorial executive at the Wall Street Journal and an acute observer of the region, ‘that only happens when the interests of prudence and the demands of shame happen to coincide’. He suggested that the ‘least unlikely’ explanation is a partial reprise of the Israeli air strike which destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.

Another of the ‘least unlikely’ possibilities is that Syria was planning to supply its terrorist clients with ‘dirty’ bombs, which would have threatened major cities through­out the world. Terrorism is a growth industry in Syria and it is only natural that, emboldened by its Iranian ally, the Syrian regime should seek to remain the market leader by supplying the ultimate weapon to Hezbollah, Hamas and a plethora of Palestinian rejectionist groups who have been given house-room in Damascus.

The Syrians have good reason to up the ante now. The Alawite regime of Bashar Assad is facing a slew of tough questions in the coming months — most particularly over its alleged role in the murder of the former Lebanese leader, Rafiq Hariri, and its active support for the insurgency in Iraq. Either of these issues could threaten the survival of the regime. How tempting, then, to create a counter-threat that might cause Washington and others to pull their horns in — and perhaps even permit a limited Syrian return to

But that does not explain why the consignment was apparently too large to be sent by air. Look deeper and you find an array of other highly plausible explanations. The North Koreans, under intense international pressure, might have chosen to ‘park’ a significant stockpile of nuclear material in Syria in the expectation of retrieving it when the heat was off. They might also have outsourced part of their nuclear development programme — paying the Syrians to enrich their uranium — while an international team of experts continued inspecting and disabling North Korea’s own nuclear facilities. The shipment might even — and this is well within the ‘least unlikely’ explanations — have been intended to assist Syria’s own nuclear weapons programme, which has been on the cards since the mid-1980s.

Apart from averting the threat that was developing at Dayr as Zawr, Israel’s strategic position has been strengthened by the raid. Firstly, it has — as Major General Amos Yadlin, the head of Israel’s military intelligence, noted — ‘restored its deterrence’, which was damaged by its inept handling of the war in the Lebanon last year. Secondly, it has reminded Damascus that Israel knows what it is up to and is capable of striking anywhere within its territory.

Equally, Iran has been put on notice that Israel will not tolerate any nuclear threat. Washington, too, has been reminded that Israel’s intelligence is often a better guide than its own in the region, a crucial point given the divisions between the Israeli and American intelligence assessments about the development of the Iranian bomb. Hezbollah, the Iranian/Syrian proxy force, has also been put on notice that the air-defence system it boasted would alter the strategic balance in the region is impotent in the face of Israeli technology.

Meanwhile, a senior Israeli analyst told us this week that the most disturbing aspect of the affair from a global perspective is the willingness of states to share their technologies and their weapons of mass destruction. ‘I do not believe that the former Soviet Union shared its WMD technology,’ he said. ‘And they were careful to limit the range of the Scud missiles they were prepared to sell. Since the end of the Cold War, though, we know the Russians significantly exceeded those limits when selling missile technology to Iran.’

But the floodgates were opened wide by the renegade Pakistan nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who is revered in Pakistan as the Father of the Islamic Bomb. Khan established a virtual supermarket of nuclear technologies, parts and plans which operated for more than a decade on a global stage. After his operation was shut down in 2004, Khan admitted transferring technology and parts to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Proliferation experts are convinced they know the identities of at least three of his many other clients: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

In addition to selling nuclear-related knowhow, the Khan network is also believed to have provided Syria with centrifuges for producing enriched uranium. In 2003, concern about Syria’s nuclear ambitions was heightened when an experimental American electronic eavesdropping device picked up distinctive signals indicating that the Syrians had not only acquired the centrifuges but were actually operating them.

If Israel’s military strike on Dayr as Zawr last month was surgical, so, too, was its handling of the aftermath. The only certainty in the fog of cover-up is that something big happened on 6 September — something very big. At the very least, it illustrates that WMD and rogue states pose the single greatest threat to world peace. We may have escaped from this incident without war, but if Iran is allowed to continue down the nuclear path, it is hard to believe that we will be so lucky again.

Douglas Davis is a former senior editor of the Jerusalem Post and James Forsyth is online editor of The Spectator.

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  • val savarese

    I checked the validity of yr article on an Israeli website which deals with terrorism espionage and political analysis. The attack did take place but neither side admits to why, it is presumed the Israeli jets went in to test the recently purchased missile defence system from Russia installed in Iran and Syria. If u want the name on the site u are welcome to email me.

  • Neil Taylor


    If an operation on the scale of that suggested by Douglas Davis and James Forsyth’s article had taken place, would there not be distinctive and measurable radioactivity in the area?

  • Bill Hensler

    You Brits are lucky. Here in the USA they are having major investigations into the way a major radio personality said a set of words. I’ve got to read your news to find out how close we came to World War 3 (or 4 or 5, depends who’s counting)

    Anyway, keep up the good reporting.

  • Agincourt

    A very serious business. But well done Israel. And Iran – do us all a favour & lay off the nukes! Otherwise….!

  • Lee Jakeman

    The nuclear “parking” explanation seems to me the most logical and likely.

  • SimoHurtta

    Come-on shipping nuclear material from North Korea with a 42 years old 1700 ton a ship, with a rather strange Korean name Al Hamad, passing two naval blockades and stopping in numerous ports. Even in Tripoli, Lebanon and uses one month to come from Port Said.

    So far the nuclear “theory” doesn’t make any sense. If it would be true why on earth do not Israeli and US reveal all possible evidence of that nuclear “transport”? Naturally if there was nothing this rumour tactics is better.

  • JohnM

    “The only problem is that no one outside a tight-lipped knot of top Israeli and American officials knows precisely what that threat involved.”

    I suggest that maybe the Syrians might have a little idea too!

  • Ed C

    Is’nt it interesting that a B-52 was discovered to have 6 cruise missle nukes on board at Barksdale on 9/6. Preparation or a threat-keep it quite or else. Close call, I would say.

  • Tom

    The syrians silence is, in my opinion, the largest admission of serious guilt possible.

  • Byron Ware

    Israel, yes, once up on a time the US could get away with doing just that! we have to many bleeding hearts for our enemys…

    Byron W.

  • the nationalist

    Bloody business, for sure. How many countries will eventually get the bomb before the whole world goes up in a fireball?

  • Vince P

    We’re already in World War Three. Our wonderful (sarcasm) leaders don’t seem to know it yet.

  • burnet1187

    Curiouser and curiouser…
    Least improbable would be a functional nuclear device.

  • Angel Elf

    I think that after all the money spent by Kim on his atom bomb project the bomb was a dud. Notice how quick he was to give up the project? So now he has all of this nuclear material to sell to someone that can use it. Also the lack of protest from Syria is deafening. Could it be that the Israelis have threatened Assad himself? Remember that overflight by Israeli planes last summer? It seems that Israeli planes can penetrate Syrian air defense with ease.

  • Eric

    Ed C Said:
    October 5th, 2007 3:28pm
    Is’nt it interesting that a B-52 was discovered to have 6 cruise missle nukes on board at Barksdale on 9/6. Preparation or a threat-keep it quite or else. Close call, I would say.

    Eric says:
    Wow. Wow. Wow.
    You’re probably right. It was no accident.

  • Rob Kay

    The use of a sensationalistic headline just to get people to read your story is the apex of incompetent journalism.

    We came close to WWIII? Please.

    There is not a single thing that Israel could bomb in Syria that would lead the world to WWIII.


    Mr. Kay:

    You may have missed the point, which I believe is “allowing the target to remain unstruck” was the WW III threat.

  • Michael Cecire

    I’ve heard the greatest amount of credence lent to the ‘nuclear parking’ and ‘dirty bomb’ theories for the strike. Syria’s silence on the matter, however, stems not only from admission by omission, but also a shocking realization that recently purchased Russian AA systems – supposedly some of the most sophisticated in the world – proved ineffectual against the F-15I (I for Israel. It’s not F151.).

    The F-15I, it should be noted, is not built for stealth. As a matter of fact, its radar cross section is rather obvious; what I’ve read, however, is that the Israelis employed some kind of communications-network attack to falsify radar data so that their strike flight remained undetected. This is conjecture and hypothesis, but either way it has given the Syrians a nasty scare – their air defense networks are supposedly one of the most comprehensive in the world – as well as their Iranian allies, who have also received similar air defense packages. I’m sure this doesn’t make the Russians particularly happy either.

  • Rob Kay

    BDUSA: I do see your point and as I often peruse these sites late in the evening I certainly could miss a point. But, as a reread all 3 pages of the story I am still am led to believe that WWIII could have begun “that day.” I take that to mean that a Syrian retaliation would have started WWIII which, to me, is ludicrous. But, maybe I am wrong.

    Let me float this thought..what if there is nothing what-so-ever wrong with the Russian equipment, but the Syrian air defense operators were ordered to stand down? Could the near silence of all parties and lack of Syrian retaliation not be explained by such a scenario?

  • Michael Robinson

    what a relief!!

  • eileen m

    Where is the Necular Fallout!!!!!!

  • The Voice

    Kudos! About freaking time! America & Israel forever. Now if you just get Condi to cancel that blasted conference that leads to hell, things might just get better.

  • charly.a

    fear keeps people under control..if there was nuke material after bombing it fallout shouldt be everywhere..dont get too paranoid..cause they want you to be so..

  • Pl.Jus

    Noone seems to report that this strike has put Olmert out of a difficult position. Probably that was the cause and not a nuclear cargo just politics micromanagement.
    As far as the undetected part etc I ve heard that the place was very near to turkey – do you know how much time does it take for f-15 to attack from turkey borders to syria?? if they did attack at all from syrian airspace and they did just used stand off weapons (popey 150KM range among others)

  • J. Guth

    Thank you for the heads-up on this vital information and assessment. It’s better than any of the so-called “news sources” in the U.S. have made. Our government is completely broken and now it seems that governments all around the world are too. Six weeks after the fact, we should be hearing nothing about this but I only received this story today by email.

  • Roger Hague

    I know little about these matters but wouldn’t it be true that bombing an installation containing large supplies of nuclear material is very hazardous to the health of people in the surroundings, and even further afield as happenened in Chernobyl? Or am I missing something important here?

  • bill gates

    don’t panic
    radiation has a half life of a thousand years
    you will fry brother

  • choco

    no fission – no fallout.
    a bombing does not produce fission, even though going there for holidays would probably not be so funny.. anyways, it’s a remote area.

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