Why Assad won't retaliate and the message sent to Iran
Analysis: When deciding to divulge responsibility for Syrian reactor's bombing, Israel took into account Assad's army being greatly weakened by the ongoing civil war and Moscow's unwillingness to back Damascus if it retaliated; timing of publication also meant to send Iran a message: drop your nuclear program, or else.
After the first wave of official Israeli acknowledgements that it attacked the nuclear reactor Syria clandestinely built, several points are still in need of clarification. Most importantly, won't Israel's detailed statement admitting to being the country whose fighter jets bombed and destroyed the reactor force the Syrian president's hand to retaliate? That is, after all, precisely the eventuality Operation Outside the Box sought to prevent.
It's more than safe to assume no such Syrian retaliatory action should be expected, and there are several reasons to that. Firstly, Syrian President Bashar Assad does not possess today the same capabilities he once did.
Interview: Attila Somfalvi; Script, content editing: Tamar Avraham; Video editing: Tamar Avraham; Video from Syria: Ron Ben-Yishai; Studio camera: Ori Davidovitch; Production: Adi Berman; Content management: Noa Glickstein Keren.
In 2007, Syria had in its possession hundreds and thousands of ballistic missiles, as well as an enormous arsenal of chemical weapons, including deadly nerve agents. Today, however, the Syrian army is a shadow of its former self and can barely shore up the regime.
Assad knows, then, that if he is embroiled in conflict with Israel, he may lose everything he fought so hard to gain—with Russian and Iranian assistance—since the onset of the civil war.
The Syrian leader controls roughly 70 percent of Syria's territory today, but he almost lost all of it merely two years ago. Had the Russians not come to his aid, he indeed would have.
Conflict with Israel now may lead him to lose everything he has, as the Russians are highly unlikely to support action against Israel, which will also harm their own interests—indirectly and possibly directly.
There are also other reasons preventing the Syrian president from ordering his army to exact revenge for the Israeli mea culpa, but the aforementioned two are enough to sustain such an assumption.
Another question raised from the affair is why Israel chose to divulge publically and so intimately—bordering on boastingly—that it was responsible for attacking the reactor North Korea built for Syria.
It may be assumed that this generous divulging of information caused not inconsiderable damage to Israel's operational and intelligence capabilities. One such reason justifying the publication is that the matter was already publicized in American and international media.
Former US president George W. Bush and his secretary of state Condoleezza Rice have written about the matter in their memoirs, to say nothing of the book by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, which was recently published.
What finally pushed the defense establishment to admitting culpability were overtures from Israeli media outlets to the High Court, claiming that refraining from accepting responsibility for the operation was anachronistic and, moreover, not congruent with the principle of freedom of expression democracies are beholden to.
The High Court indeed backed the air of secrecy surrounding the operation in Israel—since the defense establishment convinced the court Assad should be allowed to maintain plausible deniability so as not to be tempted to retaliate.
Through the intervening years, however, the High Court's justices have grown more and more skeptical as to the need and logic of maintaining that secrecy, or as a senior security official said, "keeping the stable door locked long after the horses have escaped."
There is, however, also a strategic reason. Israel's public taking of responsibility was meant to serve as a warning to the Iranians and to deter them from continuing their nuclear program. It was intended to signal to Tehran that Israel still abides by the "Begin doctrine" and will not allow a country with which it is still in a state of war to obtain nuclear weapons.
The Begin doctrine led to the bombing of the Iraqi reactor in 1981, and the same strategic doctrine guided the bombing of the North Korean reactor in Syria eleven years ago. It's quite clear who may soon be third.
This strategic signal is doubly important now, when President Donald Trump is threatening to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal, while Iran—for its part—is counter-threatening to resume its nuclear program with vigor if Trump makes good on his threats.
At this point in time, then, it's crucial for Israel's national security that the Iranians remember that renewing the nuclear arms race may carry disastrous repercussions for them.
The minutiae of the different intelligence, strategic, political and military-operational processes preceding the reactor's bombing were also important to be made known in detail, as was the "soft war"—through both a diplomatic and media campaign—waged by Israel in an effort to prevent a war with Syria after the operation.
For over a year, Israel's conduct vis-à-vis the affair was exemplary and should be taught and copied for generations to come, so we can once again achieve national security objectives without shedding a single drop of blood.
Plaudits for laying down the groundwork for the successful operation deserve to go to members of the intelligence apparatus, or to be more precise, members of the IDF's Intelligence Corps and Mossad operatives, who through endless and enormous intellectual efforts were finally able to pin down the Syrian nuclear program—not thanks to a "golden piece of evidence" but through sheer concerted effort, from the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate down to the last army intelligence and Mossad operatives.
They put hundreds of pieces of the puzzle together and worked tirelessly until they came up with the smoking gun. This successful effort, however, should be contrasted with the abject failure of the intelligence community to even be aware of the existence of Muammar Gaddafi's military nuclear project in Libya.
Only in 2004, when the Americans notified us they were successful in convincing the despot to scrap the program, did we find out about it.
That sent shockwaves through the Israeli intelligence community, which up until that point was steeped in misconception. Estimates in Israel said Syria did not possess the scientific infrastructures to support a nuclear project and that Assad was basing his strategic deterrence vis-à-vis Israel on the tons of chemical weapons he had amassed.
It should nevertheless be noted that the intelligence community—starting with junior officers and all the way to the heads of the Military Intelligence Directorate and Mossad—had the praiseworthy intellectual readiness to "switch gears," and as a result the nuclear plot brewing between North Korea and Syria was revealed.
The importance of American backing
Another noteworthy aspect of the affair pertains to the political and strategic moves opposite the US, which guaranteed Israel political and military support for action—which would have proven invaluable had the conflict devolved to war.
Israel shared its information with the Americans, was able to covertly make clear to them the need to terminate the threat and therefore enjoyed their backing.
In 1981, when then-prime minister Menachem Begin decided to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor, he didn't bring the Americans into the fold and President Ronald Reagan therefore denounced the attack and was close to hitting Israel with sanctions.
Speaking of which, the argument between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak—which was often acrimonious—regarding the operation's timing did not stem merely from electoral and political considerations or the two figures' egos. It was a true dispute between Olmert, who greatly feared the possibility of the reactor being operational and therefore beyond bombardment, and Barak, who believed and knew there were ways of neutralizing a plutogenic nuclear reactor even after it was already "hot" and active.
Certainly, emotions ran high, but today it can be safely said that the dispute was topical and even justified.
Most important, however, is that the entire system—despite political disagreements and bad blood following the Second Lebanon War—came together for serious, thorough staff work on all levels of government, starting with the political ranks within and without Cabinet and ending with the last of the air force's ground mechanics who installed the bombs on the planes.
The kind of work surrounding the bombing of the reactor has not been seen in Israel before or since, and that is a shame. No less importantly, despite several hundred people being in the know, the story never leaked out from the Israeli side, which allowed both to surprise the Syrians and Assad to ignore the attack, and therefore circumvent war.
Beyond the pride and satisfaction undoubtedly felt by Israel's populace, this model should be studied by future generations of Israeli politicians, intelligence operatives and military men.