Israelis Still Won't Comment on Syria Attack

Israel Materials 15 October 2007 13:18

( LatWp ) - Israeli officials declined to comment Sunday on a news report that the target of an airstrike in Syria last month was a partly constructed nuclear reactor.

The New York Times, citing unidentified U.S. and foreign officials, said the facility attacked by Israeli forces appeared modeled on a version employed by North Korea for stockpiling nuclear weapons fuel.

The newspaper said North Korea's role was not clear, nor was it known how much of the facility had been built. It also was unclear whether Syria could claim the reactor reportedly at the site was designed to produce electricity, T he New York Times said.

It was the latest in a string of media reports suggesting that the mystery-draped strike in Syria targeted a nuclear-related facility.

Israel has maintained almost complete silence on the attack, first reported by Syrian officials, and Israeli media have been under strict censorship.

Israeli leaders maintained their silence following the latest report.

Last month, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, of the right-wing Likud Party, appeared to confirm an attack when he told Israeli television he had been privy from its inception and supported the action. He did not elaborate.

Sunday, some Israeli analysts expressed skepticism that the target was a nuclear reactor. The reported site of the strike, far from the center of Syria and near the borders with Turkey and Iraq, would seem an unlikely venue for a project of such significance, said Efraim Inbar, a weapons expert who directs the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

"The location of such a site I don't think would be the best place. It's too close to Turkey and Iraq," Inbar said. "I have my doubts."

Syria has carried out an ambitious chemical weapons program, but Inbar said Syria was not known to have pursued nuclear capabilities.

"They have wanted strategic parity for years with Israel," Inbar said. "But, so far, they went with the cheapest and easiest way, which was chemical weapons."

Eyal Zisser, a Syria expert who directs the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, agreed it would be surprising if Syria had made progress on a nuclear program.

But he said Syrian President Bashar al- Assad feels isolated and threatened by the Bush administration and may have sought a measure of security by trying to develop a nuclear program with the help of North Korea, with which Syria has forged ties.

"It was not on the agenda before these reports, but this is very logical from the point of view of Syria," Zisser said.

An assessment by the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv earlier this year said Syria had conducted "basic" nuclear research and reportedly had reached a deal with Russia for a reactor.

The reported airstrike reminded many Israelis of the 1981 attack that destroyed Iraq's Osirak reactor before it began operating. That pre- emptive raid remains a proud moment for Israel, so the government's decision not to discuss the action in Syria has puzzled many observers.

Some analysts say the government's decision to keep quiet could reflect Israeli sensitivity toward reported divisions within the Bush administration over whether such military action was justified.

Others said it reflected a desire by the Olmert government not to humiliate al- Assad in a way that would goad him into retaliating.

"A war is the last thing this government needs," Zisser said, an apparent reference to the widely perceived political weakness of Olmert's coalition.

Arab regimes have been nearly as quiet about the reported strike, signaling to some Israeli analysts a deepening gulf between much of the Arab world and Syria, whose dealings with Iran have grown tighter amid attempts by the United States to isolate al- Assad.