This weekend, the mystery of the Israeli aircraft over northern Syria became more important and even less clear than it was before. The story began Sept. 6 with a report from Syria that an Israeli aircraft had dropped ordnance over northern Syria and had been forced by Syrian air defenses to retreat from Syrian airspace. Syria reported sonic booms in the North as, they would have it, the Israeli plane went west toward the Mediterranean at supersonic speeds. This was mysterious, as the Syrians reported no damage and only a single plane. We assumed it was an Israeli reconnaissance flight.
Then, during a meeting of Syrian and Turkish leaders, the Turkish government reported that two auxiliary fuel tanks from Israeli planes had been found in Turkish territory, close to the Syrian frontier. That would indicate that the Israelis were operating very close to the Turkish border, had been detected by the Syrians, released their fuel tanks and took off. That story left two unsolved mysteries: First, what were the Israelis looking for that close to the Turkish border — or more precisely, right on the Turkish border? And second, why were the Turks so touchy about some drop tanks that were, after all, left behind by Israel, a country with which Turkey has close military relations? And of course, that takes us back to why the Israelis would be monitoring events on the Turkish-Syrian border themselves instead of just asking the Turks.
Then, this weekend, Washington started leaking, with the media carrying a series of utterly contradictory explanations from unnamed American sources. The Washington Post ran a report by an American “expert on the Middle East” (pedigree unclear, but obviously impressive enough to be used by the Washington Post). The Post report said the target was a Syrian facility officially labeled by Syria as an “agricultural research center.” The attack was linked with the arrival of a ship in a Syrian port carrying goods from North Korea labeled as “cement.” According to the Post’s expert, it wasn’t clear what the ship was actually carrying, but the consensus in Israel was that it was delivering nuclear equipment. Meanwhile, an unnamed source in The New York Times said the mission was indeed a reconnaissance flight tracking North Korean nuclear equipment. So, two of the major U.S. newspapers have both had similar leaks. This is clearly the official unofficial position of the U.S. government.
The problem with this theory is not with the idea that a North Korean ship might be carrying nuclear equipment to Syria. The problem is the idea that Syria would have a nuclear research facility smack on its border with Turkey. Turkish-Syrian relations are not always warm, and in fact are frequently quite nasty. The idea that the Syrians would conduct ultra-secret nuclear research (or store such equipment) on the Turkish border is a little hard to buy. If we were them, we would like to see our valuable nuclear research out of mortar range of a hostile power — but perhaps the Washington Post’s expert is on to something.
Another leak, provided by Israel to the London Times, hinted that there were chemical weapons at the site, and that the attack (note that this leak claimed there was an attack and not simply a reconnaissance flight) helped save Israel from an “unpleasant surprise.” A sub-leak from the Israelis was that the target destroyed in the raid was a store of chemical weapons. So the Americans are talking about North Korean nuclear technology while the Israelis are talking about chemical weapons. Amos Yadlin, head of Israeli military intelligence, said that he would not discuss the matter, then went on to discuss it by saying that Israel now has the deterrent capability against Hezbollah that it didn’t have in 2006. Perhaps the chemical weapons were to be shipped to Hezbollah?
The least credible story of the bunch, which came from the British paper the Observer, was that the raid might have been a dry run for an attack on Iran. That is of course possible, but we are having trouble understanding how flying to the Turkish-Syrian border would constitute a dry run for anything beyond flying to the Turkish-Syrian border.
We do not mean to be flip. We think that this raid or reconnaissance flight, or whatever it was, was important. It’s importance was less about U.S.-Syrian relations than about Syrian-Turkish relations. That relationship has been critical to both countries for years. If the Syrians are actually storing anything sensitive along the Turkish-Syrian border, that would mean that the Syrians might have some sort of understanding with the Turks that would be extremely important for the region. For us, the location of the facility is more startling than the possibility of a North Korean shipment, chemical weapons or even a dry run for a strike on Tehran.
Since when do the Syrians trust the Turks enough to do anything important along the border? Since when do the Israelis have to do reconnaissance flights along the border? The Turks patrol that area pretty intensely. We had thought there was a strong intelligence-sharing program. Perhaps it’s no longer a trusted channel? Of course, the Turks somehow might have been complicit in this.
The mystery is deep and we are baffled, but it does not strike us as trivial. Something important happened Sept. 6.