The Story of 'Operation Orchard' How Israel Destroyed Syria's Al Kibar Nuclear Reactor

By Erich Follath and

Part 7: The Consequences of Operation Orchard


"The facility that was bombed was not a nuclear plant, but rather a conventional military installation," Syrian President Bashar Assad insisted during a SPIEGEL interview at his palace near Damascus in mid-January 2009. "We could have struck back. But should we really allow ourselves to be provoked into a war? Then we would have walked into an Israeli trap." What about the traces of uranium? "Perhaps the Israelis dropped it from the air to make us the target of precisely these suspicions."

Damascus, he said, is not interested in becoming a nuclear power, nor does it believe that Tehran is developing the bomb. "Syria is fundamentally opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. We want a nuclear-free Middle East, Israel included."

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Assad, outraged over Israeli belligerence in the Gaza Strip, has suspended secret peace talks with the enemy, which had been brokered by Turkey. But it is also abundantly clear that Assad is eager to remove himself from the list of global political pariahs and enter into dialogue with the United States and Europe.

In the autumn of 2009, relations between Damascus and the West seem to be on the mend, probably as the result of American concessions rather than Israeli bombs. French President Nicolas Sarkozy received Assad at the Elysée Palace and told him that the normalization of relations would depend on the Syrians meeting a provocatively worded condition: "End nuclear weapons cooperation with Iran." In the first week of October, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad traveled to Washington to meet with his counterparts there. And Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, with Washington's explicit blessing, went to Damascus in an attempt to make a shift to the moderate camp more palatable for Assad.

President Barack Obama will probably send a US military attaché to Damascus soon, followed by an ambassador. Syria could be removed from the US's list of state sponsors of terrorism, a list which also includes Iran, Cuba and Sudan. The prospect of billions in aid, as well as transfers of high technology, is being held out to Assad. The Syrian president knows that this is probably his only hope to revive his ailing economy in the long term.

Relations between Damascus and Tehran have worsened considerably in recent weeks. Western intelligence agencies report that the Iranian leadership is demanding that Syria return -- in full and without compensation -- substantial shipments of uranium, which it no longer needs now that its nuclear program has been destroyed.

The latest news from Damascus, the ancient city where Saulus turned into Paulus according to the old scripts: According to information SPIEGEL has obtained from sources in Damascus, Assad has been considering taking a sensational political step. He is believed to have suggested to contacts in Pyongyang that he is considering the disclosure of his "national" nuclear program, but without divulging any details of cooperation with his North Korean and Iranian partners. Libyan revolutionary leader Moammar Gadhafi reaped considerable benefits from the international community after a similar "confession" about his country's nuclear program.

The reaction from North Korea was swift and extremely harsh: Pyongyang sent a senior government representative to Damascus to inform Syrian authorities that the North Koreans would terminate all cooperation on chemical weapons if Assad proceeded with his plan. And this regardless whether he mentioned Pyongyang in this context or not.

Tehran's reaction is believed to have been even more severe. Saeed Jalili, the country's leading nuclear negotiator and a close associate of Iran's supreme religious leader, apparently brought along an urgent message from the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which Khamenei called Assad's plan "unacceptable" and threatened that it would spell the end of the two countries' strategic alliance and a sharp decline in relations.

According to intelligence sources, Assad has backed down -- for the time being. However he is also looking for ways to do business with his enemies, even Israel's hard-line prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Nevertheless, Assad is loath to give up his contacts to Hezbollah and Tehran completely, and he will demand a very high price for the possible recognition of Israel and for playing the role of mediator with Tehran, namely the return of the entire Golan Heights.

Time on Its Side

Did Operation Orchard make an impression on the Iranians, and did they understand it the way it was probably intended by the Israelis: as a final warning to Tehran?

The Iranians have -- literally -- entrenched themselves, and not only since the Israeli attack on Syria. Many of the centrifuges they use for uranium enrichment are now operating in underground tunnels. Not even the bunker-busting super-bombs the Pentagon has requested be made available soon, citing "urgent operational requirements," are capable of fully destroying facilities like the one in Natanz.

The Americans -- or the Israelis -- would have to conduct air strikes for several weeks and destroy more than a dozen known nuclear facilities to set back the Iranian nuclear program by more than a few weeks. It would be a far more complex undertaking than the Israelis' past attacks on the Osirak reactor in Iraq and Syria's Al Kibar nuclear plant. And even after such a comprehensive operation, which would expose them to counterattacks, they could not be entirely sure of having wiped out all key elements of the Iranian nuclear program. Just in September, Tehran surprised the world with the confession that it had built a previously unreported uranium enrichment plant near Qom.

Operation Orchard achieved only one thing: If the Iranians had planned to build a "spare" nuclear plant in Syria, that is, a backup plutonium factory, their plans were thwarted. But Tehran has time on its side. The Iranians are already believed to have reached breakout capacity -- in other words, the ability to begin building a nuclear weapon if they so desire. Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power.

And Syria? There is nothing to suggest that Damascus will or is even able to play with fire once again. A conventional factory has in fact been built over the ruins of the Al Kibar plant. There is no access to the plant -- for "security reasons," as residents of Deir el-Zor say tersely -- at the roadblock near the great river and the desert village of Tibnah.

The turquoise-colored river flows slowly, the river that Moses, according to the Bible, promised to the Israelites as part of their holy land. To this day, many radical Israelis take the relevant passage in the Bible as seriously as an entry in the land register: "Every place that your foot shall tread upon shall be yours. From the desert, and from Libanus, from the great river Euphrates unto the western sea."

Referring to the same river, the Prophet Muhammad is supposed to have said: "The Euphrates reveals the treasures within itself. Whoever sees it should not take anything from it."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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