TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel’s pre-emptive attack a decade ago on a plutonium reactor in the Syrian desert not only derailed Damascus’ drive for nuclear weapons, but spared the world the specter of mass destruction capabilities falling into the hands of the Islamic State group.
That’s the message behind Israel’s first-ever official account of its operation Outside the Box, the four-hour mission that began before midnight on Sep. 5, 2007, to destroy Syria’s top-secret and nearly operational al-Kibar nuclear facility just weeks before it went hot.
“Imagine if today there was a nuclear reactor in Syria, what kind of situation we would be facing,” said Israeli Air Force Commander Amikam Norkin, the man who led the planning and execution of the “precision, low-signature” strike mission when he was chief of operations.
“From an historical perspective, I think the Israeli government decision to act and destroy the reactor is one of the most important decisions that were taken here over the last 70 years,” he added.
Why declassify now?
Until Wednesday’s release of newly declassified documents and images from the operation, Israel had never acknowledged the eight front-line fighters that delivered nearly 20 tons of ground-penetrating explosives on the reactor concealed deep in a ravine near the Euphrates River in northeastern Syria. To this day, despite the International Atomic Energy Agency’s evidence to the contrary, the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad continues to deny that the site built with the assistance of North Korea was a nuclear facility.
Despite media and think tank reports based on WikiLeaks documents, U.S. congressional testimony and even reference to the event contained in the 2010 memoir by former U.S. President George W. Bush, Israel’s military censor continued to impose blanket gags on all details surrounding the operation.
For more than a decade, Israel stuck to its policy of deniability aimed at preventing undue embarrassment to Assad that could have forced the Syrian leader to respond in ways that could have spiraled into war.
“In 2007, I was very worried that the operation could trigger war with Syria,” recalled retired Israeli Air Force Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, who was the head of military intelligence at the time. “Our mission was to eliminate an existential threat to the state of Israel, while minimizing the risk of a broader war.”
Yadlin, the only person to have played a lead role in Israel’s destruction of two nuclear reactors ― first as a pilot in the 1981 attack in Iraq, and later as military intelligence chief during the 2007 operation ― recalled opposite concerns associated with both missions.
“In 1981, the challenge was operational. It was far away. We didn’t have aerial refueling, satellite imagery, GPS or the advanced munitions we have today. Our biggest worry was conducting the mission with ultimate success. Back then, Iraq had no missiles that could reach Israel and there was no real danger of a wider war breaking out.
“But in 2007, it was the other way around. I wasn’t worried about operational success of the attack, but about the danger of it triggering a war. Syria could have launched 100 missiles at us the following morning and we would have been in an entirely different situation.”
It was only last autumn, sources in Israel noted, that the Jewish state’s internal security bureaucracy reached consensus that its draconian policy of deniability was no longer relevant given the strategic changes driven by Syria’s protracted civil war.
“Considering all the attacks Israel has routinely waged on Syrian soil since the start of the civil war, the bureaucracy here finally realized this is no longer an issue … that it was time to end this ridiculous censorship, get the official version on record and give credit where credit is due,” said Amir Oren, a veteran defense analyst at the Israeli daily Haaretz.
Timing it right
In an eight-page summary with accompanying documentation released by the Israeli military, the operation Outside the Box began with intelligence received in late 2004, when “military intelligence and the [Israeli intelligence agency] Mossad obtained sensitive information in regard to foreign experts helping Syria with nuclear activities.”
By January 2006, Israel secured “substantial evidence” that Syria was building a nuclear reactor. And in April that same year, Israel was able to identify “suspicious buildings” in the Deir ez-Zor region some 450 kilometers northeast of Damascus.
During the months of 2007 leading up to the early September attack, Israeli intelligence focused on assessing progress at the complex and calculating when the reactor would begin operations. The understanding was that once fuel was loaded in the core, an attack would cause prohibitive casualties and environmental damage. At the same time, Israeli intelligence was working to supply “micro-tactical” targeting data needed to support accurate strikes on the reactor’s critical systems, while specialists calculated the most effective timing for the preemptive attack.
“The greater complexity was to prepare the IAF for a war just one year after the Lebanon war, and [most in] the IAF didn’t understand why.”
In videotaped remarks released in Israel, Norkin emphasized that only a very small number of people were read into real mission planning, with a slightly larger group privy to only part of the secret plan. Only one pilot in each of the three squadrons tasked for the mission was connected to IAF headquarters, with the rest exposed to target info just a few hours before the mission.
“We all understood that leaks could cause the reactor to go operational before its planned time and that afterwards, we wouldn’t have been able to attack,” Norkin said.
The attack operation began 30 minutes before midnight on Sept. 5, 2007, with four F-15Is from Squadron 69 and two pairs of F-16Is ― from Squadron 119 and Squadron 253 ― taking off from the southern Hatzerim and Ramon air bases. By 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 6, after Israel verified that the reactor was destroyed “beyond any chance of rehabilitation,” all eight planes returned safely to base.
Preventing ‘severe strategic implications’
“Intelligence assessed that the nuclear reactor had been totally disabled, and that the damage done was irreversible,” according to the Israel Defense Forces briefing papers. “The success of the mission has been measured, then and now, by three components laid forth by the chief of the general staff: destruction of the nuclear reactor, prevention of escalation in the region and the strengthening of deterrence.”
Now, more than a decade later, the IDF is crediting the operation with added significance, given that the Deir ez-Zor region was seized by forces loyal to ISIS.
“The security implications of a nuclear reactor falling into the hands of [ISIS] or other extremist groups during the war in Syria are vast,” according to the IDF. “The nuclear reactor being held by Assad would have had severe strategic implications on the entire Middle East.”
Among the newly declassified documents was a six-point letter from Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedy, IAF commander, to war fighters tasked for the mission that would take place later that night. In characteristically clipped Air Force style, Shkedy’s pre-op letter of Sept. 5, 2007, stated:
1. You are being sent today to participate in a mission of supreme importance to the state of Israel and the Jewish people.
2. The mission is to destroy the target and to disengage with no fallen aircraft, and to do so through as much “low signature” as possible.
3. The intention is for this action not to be connected, at least in the first stage, to the state of Israel and to minimize the potential for broader war.
4. The action is top secret before and after its implementation, until a clear decision directs otherwise.
5. Counting on you. Believe in you and am convinced of your success.
6. Good luck.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.