“Israel, Syria and the Glaring Secret” By George Friedman

Stratfor: Geopolitical Intelligence Report – September 25, 2007Israel, Syria and the Glaring Secret

By George Friedman

What happened in the Middle East on Sept. 6?

The first reports came from the Syrians, who said their air defenses fired at an Israeli warplane that had penetrated Syrian airspace and dropped some ordnance on the country’s North. The plane then fled toward the Mediterranean at supersonic speeds, the Syrians said, noting that sonic booms had been heard.

A Syrian delegation was meeting Turkish officials about the same time, and the Turks announced that two Israeli fuel tanks had been dropped inside of Turkish territory, one in Gaziantep province and the other in Hatay province. That would mean the aircraft did come under some sort of fire and dropped fuel tanks to increase speed and maneuverability. It also would mean the plane was flying close to Turkish territory or over Turkish territory, at the northwestern tip of Syria.

The Israelis said nothing. It appeared at first glance that an Israeli reconnaissance flight had attracted Syrian attention and got out of there fast, though even that was puzzling. The Israelis monitor Syria carefully, but they have close relations with theTurkish military, which also watches Syria carefully. We would assume they have intelligence-sharing programs and that reconnaissance in this area could have been done by the Turks or, more likely, by Israeli reconnaissance satellites. Yet, an Israeli reconnaissance flight seemed like the only coherent explanation.

What was most striking from the beginning was the relative silence on all sides. The Israelis remained mum, not even bothering to leak a misleading but plausible story. The Syrians, after threatening to take the issue to the U.N. Security Council, have been less vociferous than one would expect. The United States had nothing official to say, but U.S. sources leaked a series of incompatibleexplanations. The Turks, after requesting an explanation for the fuel tanks, dropped the matter.

The leaks, which seemed to be coming from the Americans, raised the scope of the operation from a reconnaissance to something more. It was U.S. sources who said up to eight aircraft were involved in the operation. Early on, a leak originating in the United States implied that there might have been Israeli commandos involved as well. U.S. leaks also mentioned that a shipment of cement had been delivered to Syria from North Korea a few days before the incident and implied that this shipment might have contained nuclear equipment of some sort that was the real target of the attack. All three countries were silent officially on the intent of the attack, but the Americans were filling in some blanks with unofficial hints.

The media also were filled with a range of contradictory speculation. One story said this was a dry run for an Israeli air attack against Iran. Another said the Israelis were demonstrating their ability — and hence the U.S. ability — to neutralize Syrian air defenses as a signal to Iran that it, too, is vulnerable. Some stories also claimed that new missiles, not nuclear materials, were being shipped to Syria. There were many other explanations, but these were either pure speculation or were deliberately being fed to the media in order to confuse the issue.

Officials finally started to go public last week. Israeli opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was consulted in advance and supported Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s action in Syria. U.S. President George W. Bush went out of his way — commenting directly and through his press secretary — to make it understood that he also knew a raid had been carried out, but had absolutely nothing to say about it. That drew attention to two things. First, the United States knew what was going on. Second, the United States was going to keep the secret — and the secret was an important one. Between Netanyahu and Bush, the reconnaissance theory was dead. An important operation occurred Sept. 6. It remains absolutely unclear what it was about.

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At a time when the United States is signaling hostile intentions toward Iran, the events in Syria need to be understood, and the fact that they remain opaque is revealing. The secrecy is designed to make a lot of people nervous. Interestingly, the Israelis threw a change-up pitch the week after the attack, signaling once again that they wanted to open talks with the Syrians — a move the Syrians quickly rebuffed.

When events get so strange that interpretation is a challenge, it usually indicates it was intended that way, that the events are significant and that they could point to further instability. We do not know whether that is true, but Israel and the United States have certainly worked hard to create a riddle wrapped in a mystery.

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(c) 2007 Strategic Forecasting, Inc. All rights reserved.

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