The most important story of this week and of most others is one on which there is a paucity of public information. We know that Israel made a bombing raid on Syria on 6 September. Everything else is conjecture or the product of unattributable briefing, but The Sunday Times gives a lucid account:
ISRAELI commandos from the elite Sayeret Matkal unit – almost certainly dressed in Syrian uniforms – made their way stealthily towards a secret military compound near Dayr az-Zawr in northern Syria. They were looking for proof that Syria and North Korea were collaborating on a nuclear programme.
Israel had been surveying the site for months, according to Washington and Israeli sources. President George W Bush was told during the summer that Israeli intelligence suggested North Korean personnel and nuclear-related material were at the Syrian site.
Israel was determined not to take any chances with its neighbour. Following the example set by its raid on an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak 1981, it drew up plans to bomb the Syrian compound.
But Washington was not satisfied. It demanded clear evidence of nuclear-related activities before giving the operation its blessing. The task of the commandos was to provide it.
Today the site near Dayr az-Zawr lies in ruins after it was pounded by Israeli F15Is on September 6. Before the Israelis issued the order to strike, the commandos had secretly seized samples of nuclear material and taken them back into Israel for examination by scientists, the sources say. A laboratory confirmed that the unspecified material was North Korean in origin. America approved an attack.
This is an extraordinary development. And what is most extraordinary about it is what has not happened. Israel, even more than the United States, is a polity where it's very hard to keep things secret. Yet this one hasn't been leaked. (The Opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, revealed publicly and to the consternation of his political opponents that he had given his support to the operation ordered by the PM, Ehud Olmert, but did not give details.) Syria, having sustained a raid on its territory, has been distinctly unforthcoming. On the other hand, the leadership of North Korea - which, to state the blindingly obvious but nonetheless pertinent, is not a country in the Middle East - has been meeting a Syrian delegation in Pyongyang in the last 24 hours.
Being neither politician nor diplomat but a mere pundit, and undeterred by the absence of corroborative evidence, I will say what I think is going on.
After 9/11, the links between rogue states and nuclear technology became a prime security concern. We know that North Korea and Iran have co-operated in missile technology, and it's possible that they've done so in nuclear technology too. We know that Libya and Iran received weapons designs and technology from Pakistan, unofficially, through the A.Q. Khan network. The circumstantial evidence is now strong that two very different autocracies, Syria and North Korea, are co-operating on nuclear technology, in defiance of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The secrecy surrounding the 6 September raid suggests that the target was important. Syria's non-response would confirm this. Syrian air defences proved gratifyingly useless and the covert activity identified by Israel is of the utmost diplomatic gravity. Meanwhile, Iran's mullahs - who in effect pull the strings that operate the intellectually nugatory figure of Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad - are doing their best, and with notable success, through deception and brinkmanship to escape the constraints nominally required of them by the EU-3. We know too that they are steering large amounts of weaponry, via Syria, to their client Hezbollah.
This is an ominous conjuncture. I shall have much more to say about it, but three observations are pertinent now.
First, when Tony Blair addressed the House of Commons a few days after 9/11, he saw more clearly than most the security challenges that now face us; I fear he is as prescient a statesman as I have long taken him for:
We know, that they [the terrorists] would, if they could, go further and use chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons of mass destruction. We know, also, that there are groups of people, occasionally states, who will trade the technology and capability of such weapons. It is time that this trade was exposed, disrupted, and stamped out. We have been warned by the events of 11 September, and we should act on the warning.
Secondly, recall the awful precedent of the UN's dealings with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. One point on which those who supported military intervention against Saddam in 2003 and those who opposed it ought to be able to agree is that the Security Council must, this time, demand compliance. As one authority on WMD, Professor Graham Pearson of the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University, has written with reference to this appalling history (The Search for Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, 2005, p. 242):
It is indeed a sorry state of affairs when the Permanent Members of the Security Council lose their resolve to address the dangers posed by a state which seeks to maintain a weapons of mass destruction capability and the Secretary-General effectively puts the UN organizations, UNSCOM and the IAEA, in the dock rather than the uncooperative and non-compliant state in Iraq. This led to the problems with Iraq being protracted and, it can be argued, to the eventual war in 2003 as had the Security Council being [sic] resolute and firm throughout and prepared to take military action in the last resort, it is possible that Iraq would have cooperated with the United Nations as it was intended to do throughout.
Thirdly, we may all in future have much cause for gratitude to the Israeli commandos who accomplished this mission, and whom I congratulate.