There is an important article in The Spectator by James Forsyth and Douglas Davis about Israel's bombing raid on a Syrian target on 6 September. The authors of the article believe we narrowly escaped World War III. They reconstruct events this way:
According to American sources, Israeli intelligence tracked a North Korean vessel carrying a cargo of nuclear material labelled ‘cement’ as it travelled halfway across the world. On 3 September the ship docked at the Syrian port of Tartous and the Israelis continued following the cargo as it was transported to the small town of Dayr as Zawr, near the Turkish border in north-eastern Syria.
The destination was not a complete surprise. It had already been the subject of intense surveillance by an Israeli Ofek spy satellite, and within hours a band of elite Israeli commandos had secretly crossed into Syria and headed for the town. Soil samples and other material they collected there were returned to Israel. Sure enough, they indicated that the cargo was nuclear.
Three days after the North Korean consignment arrived, the final phase of Operation Orchard was launched. With prior approval from Washington, Israeli F151 jets were scrambled and, minutes later, the installation and its newly arrived contents were destroyed.
I wrote about this raid a fortnight ago and made three immediate observations. Most important, we can be thankful that Israel appears to have successfully interdicted an operation that makes a mockery of international efforts to counter nuclear proliferation. Here's another point.
It's an open secret that Israel's political and diplomatic leadership did not favour the Iraq War. As Israel is a US ally, this was never said in public but it was a widely held position. It is certainly advanced in private by the most senior figures in Israeli politics. The view was that in tackling Saddam Hussein the US-led coalition was going after the wrong regional tyrant. Iran represented the genuine threat. The mistaken focus on Saddam and the failure thus far to establish a stable democratic Iraqi state have rendered more difficult an eventual reckoning with Iran's emerging military power.
I disagree with this view, which is to say I believe the US and its allies were right to overthrow Saddam by force, and ought to have done it much sooner. One of the most important reasons is reinforced by Israel's action in Syria.
The issue of WMD in Iraq became an immense political liability for Tony Blair and President Bush. To a certain extent they brought it on themselves through advancing the case for military intervention by symbol more than exegesis. The genuine grounds for concern were set out pellucidly by Rolf Ekeus, the first chairman of UNSCOM, in the Washington Post in June 2003:
Detractors of Bush and Blair have tried to make political capital of the presumed discrepancy between the top-level assurances about Iraq's possession of chemical weapons (and other WMD) and the inability of invading forces to find such stocks. The criticism is a distortion and trivialization of a major threat to international peace and security.
During its war against Iran, Iraq found that chemical warfare agents, especially nerve agents such as sarin, soman, tabun and later VX, deteriorated after just a couple of weeks' storage in drums or in filled chemical warfare munitions. The reason was that the Iraqi chemists, lacking access to high-quality laboratory and production equipment, were unable to make the agents pure enough. (UNSCOM found in 1991 that the large quantities of nerve agents discovered in storage in Iraq had lost most of their lethal property and were not suitable for warfare.)
Thus the Iraqi policy after the Gulf War was to halt all production of warfare agents and to focus on design and engineering, with the purpose of activating production and shipping of warfare agents and munitions directly to the battlefield in the event of war. Many hundreds of chemical engineers and production and process engineers worked to develop nerve agents, especially VX, with the primary task being to stabilize the warfare agents in order to optimize a lasting lethal property. Such work could be blended into ordinary civilian production facilities and activities, e.g., for agricultural purposes, where batches of nerve agents could be produced during short interruptions of the production of ordinary chemicals.
This combination of researchers, engineers, know-how, precursors, batch production techniques and testing is what constituted Iraq's chemical threat -- its chemical weapon. The rather bizarre political focus on the search for rusting drums and pieces of munitions containing low-quality chemicals has tended to distort the important question of WMD in Iraq and exposed the American and British administrations to unjustified criticism.
In short, the political controversy over the Coalition's failure to find WMD stockpiles in Iraq was hopelessly misconceived. The potential proliferation of WMD (an unhelpfully broad term that is nonetheless in common use) in the Middle East is deeply disturbing. The circumstantial evidence is strong that North Korea has illicitly and covertly been exporting nuclear technology to Syria. Baathist Iraq was not - as US policy once foolishly assumed - a stabilising factor to set against Iran and its clients (whether state actors, such as Syria, or terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah). It was an additional source of the threats that Tony Blair identified better than he articulated: bellicose and lawless tyrannies, allied to terrorist groups, and a transmission of WMD technologies from one to the other.
The Middle East is in a volatile state where autocracies, especially that of Iran and the forces it controls, are undermining constitutional government in Lebanon and Iraq, and threatening Israel with extinction. One factor at least we can count on is that Iraq is now out of that business. That is an important gain.