by David Pratt

October 20, 2007

Foreign Editor

from SundayHerald Website




PERHAPS YOU were watching a late-night film or dancing the hours away in some packed nightclub. Maybe you were already tucked up snugly in bed. Wherever you were, it's pretty much a dead certainty you were oblivious at the time to the dramatic events that were unfolding in the skies over Syria on September 6 - events so startling, so secret and dangerous in their implications they could have come straight from the pages of an international best-selling thriller.

But this was not fiction. Indeed, what took place in the small hours of that Thursday morning - still the subject of immense speculation - was a terrifying reminder of the dangerous times we live in, and how much more volatile the Middle East could yet become.

"If people had known how close we came to world war three that day there'd have been mass panic," one senior British ministerial source was later quoted in a magazine as saying.


"Never mind the floods or foot-and-mouth, Gordon Brown really would have been dealing with the bloody Book of Revelation and Armageddon."

So just what were those shadowy, near-apocalyptic events of last month, that some intelligence analysts believe could have been a "dry run" for a military strike on Iran? A strike which, if it went ahead, in itself has the potential to plunge the world into an even bigger Middle Eastern conflict, and simultaneously unleash an unprecedented wave of global terrorist attacks.

In the small hours of September 6, Israeli air force pilots of 69 Squadron locked the missile guidance systems of their F-15 and F-16 aircraft on the target beneath them in northeastern Syria. The endgame of what had been codenamed "Operation Orchard" was about to be played out.

But it was six weeks earlier, in another deadly incident near the Syrian town of Aleppo, where clues lie to the chain of subterfuge, surveillance, and special operations that culminated in that lethal night mission.

On July 26, an enormous explosion had blown up a military ammunition dump in Musalmiya about seven miles from Aleppo. As the official version of events was released by the Syrian news agency SANA, it was claimed that "very explosive products" had detonated after local temperatures of up to 50˚C had sparked a fire at the facility.

Since then, however, based on information from what it says are Syrian inside sources, the highly respected magazine Jane's Defence Weekly has given a very different and alarming account of what happened.

To begin with, Syrian government claims of high temperatures being the cause of the blast were described as "implausible" by the Jane's source, who said the explosion occurred at 4.30am, the coolest time of the day.

Instead, they say, in what was actually a secret weapons complex rather than a simple arms dump, fuel caught fire in a laboratory as Syrian and Iranian engineers were attempting to activate a 300-mile range "Scud C" missile with a mustard gas warhead.

Given its range, the Scud C, originally sold to Syria by North Korea in 1991, could easily be fired into Israel. Even more worrying for the Israelis, who well remember the fear struck into its citizens by the Iraqi Scuds that plummeted into their country during the 1991 Gulf War, the more advanced type of the same missile is capable of accommodating a nuclear warhead.

For Israeli and US intelligence agencies it was nothing new to hear that Syria was in possession of Scud missiles or working on chemical and biological weapons systems. But news of the Musalmiya incident was given a further alarming twist as reports surfaced some weeks later that the Israelis had been monitoring the arrival of a North Korean flagged freighter - possibly the Al-Hamad - at the Syrian port of Tartous on September 3.

Though officially carrying a cargo of cement, according to intelligence sources quoted in the Washington Post newspaper, the Israelis believed that on board the ship was a consignment of nuclear material or equipment.

On September 15, Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler wrote that,

"an Israeli official provided the US with evidence of Syrian-North Korean co-operation on a nuclear facility".

Many veteran Middle East intelligence hands believe this to be plausible explanation. Among them is Ray Close, a former CIA analyst in the Near East Division and former station chief in Saudi Arabia, who served for 27 years as an "Arabist" for the agency.

According to what Close himself admits is a "speculative" analysis, he believes that:

"The Israelis offered us the US intelligence that Syria is beginning to develop a nuclear capability based on North Korean technology and urged the US to co-operate with them in mounting a military attack to destroy the Syrian site."

Close says the advantages of the action as presented by the Israelis would be to,

"to pre-empt a new and dangerous violation of Israeli and American proliferation red lines intimidate and embarrass Syria, and throw a scare into Iran".

Some accounts say that after the arrival in Syria of the ship carrying the suspected consignment, the Israelis then tracked it to a site near the town of Dayr as Zawr in northeastern Syria, which had already been under surveillance by Israel's own Ofek spy satellite.

What happened over the following few days became known as "Operation Orchard", and such was the unprecedented shutdown on information from Israeli, US, and Syrian government sources alike about the raid that Middle East analysts can only conclude that the stakes were extremely high for all sides and the significance of the event immense.

Yet, despite the censorship and security, some details have slowly emerged.

Last week, the New York Times quoted what it described as foreign nationals with access to intelligence reports as saying that the target of Operation Orchard had indeed been a "partly constructed nuclear reactor", modeled on North Korean lines.

Within the last 48 hours, ABC News have said that another US official told them that the Israelis first discovered the nuclear facility earlier this summer and that Mossad (Israel's intelligence service) had even been able to "co-opt" one of the facility's workers or to insert their own spy.

If this is true, then the activities would be reminiscent of Mossad's undercover work in 1982, which prepared the way for a similar Israeli raid that destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osiraq.

According to the ABC source, pictures taken by Mossad showed a big cylindrical structure with thick reinforced walls deep in the desert along the Euphrates river which undoubtedly had been built with "North Korean expertise".

"It was a place where no-one would ever go unless you had a reason to go there," said the US official, who added that the plant had been there for at least eight months before the Israeli raid.

Until the ABC report little had been known about the specific target of Operation Orchard, but some logistical details have now surfaced from the fog of secrecy. What is certain is that Israeli jets, possibly as many as eight F-15s and F16s, armed with Maverick missiles and 500lb bombs, took part in the mission.

On the ground as part of the operation a "Sayeret Shaldag" Israeli Air Force Commando unit, not unlike Britain's SAS, would probably have been deployed to use laser beams in guiding in the pilots, who were not even told about their ultimate target until they were airborne, such was the level of security surrounding the operation.

Also flying with the Israeli bombers was an ELINT (ELectronic Signals INTelligence) aircraft used for gathering crucial data about any enemy's defense network, including radars and surface-to-air missile systems.

Indeed, one of the most significant aspects of Operation Orchard was the apparent ease with which the Israelis penetrated Syrian air defenses.

The Kuwaiti newspaper Al Watan reported that the Americans provided aerial cover for the Israeli strike aircraft, and that Russian experts are studying why the two state-of-the-art Russian-built radar systems in Syria did not detect the Israeli planes.

"Iran reportedly has asked the same question, since it is buying the same systems and might have paid for the Syrian acquisitions," said an Al Watan reporter.

In fact, Iran has already bought and paid for the defense systems. Like Syria, it bought 29 of the Tor-M1 units from Russia for $750 million - to guard its nuclear sites - which were delivered in January and tested in February this year.

This, along with earlier reports in the Kuwaiti press that former Iranian deputy defense minister Ali Rheza Ali, who defected several months ago, supplied intelligence sources in the West with information about the site Operation Orchard targeted, will give little comfort to Tehran as the clamor for a strike against their own nuclear facilities gains momentum.

That such a plan to attack Iran exists is now an accepted fact, as is the belief among many Middle East watchers that its implementation might not be far off.

One year after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Bush administration published a report entitled The National Security Strategy of the United States of America in which it outlined its response to any similar threats.

"We must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends," the report concluded.

Today, the operational embodiment of that strategy is known as Contingency Plan 8022 (Conplan 8022), a strike plan that might be used in any pre-emptive strike on Iran or other countries and is able to be unleashed with 12 hours of a presidential order.

In terms of Iran, a detailed blueprint for a military attack on the country already exists. Earlier this year the Israeli air force held joint exercises with visiting US pilots, although Israeli sources are keen to dismiss speculation that the drills were connected to an attack on Iran.

For Israel, the coming months are crucial in dealing with Iran: either Tehran heeds sanctions and stops enriching uranium, or Israel might feel it has to attack decisively, as it did with Operation Orchard in Syria.

The question on many people's minds is whether Operation Orchard was simply muscle-flexing or a serious statement of intent by Israel to go it alone in attacking Iran's nuclear capacity if the US does not.

Yesterday, the resignation of Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, the country's main contact with the West over Tehran's atomic program, struck another blow against diplomatic hopes.

Iran's own Revolutionary Guards, meanwhile, were in belligerent mood:

"Now the enemy should ask themselves how many of their people they are ready to have sacrificed for their stupidity in attacking Iran," Mahmoud Chaharbaghi, a brigadier, warned.

A few months ago, Sam Gardiner - a retired US air force colonel who has been directly involved in the past with drawing up US strategy on Iran - offered another warning as to the dangers any pre-emptive strike poses.

"The fuel for a fire is in place," he said. "All we need is a spark. The danger is that we have created conditions that could lead to a greater Middle East war."