14 October 2007

Osirak Redux?

There have been revelations this morning about the Israeli air strike against a Syrian facility last month. It turns out that the building was a nascent nuclear facility that could have ultimately been used to develop weapons-grade plutonium. Indeed, the model for the facility appears to be based on that used by North Korea to develop its nuclear weapons stockpile.
Because this was a preemptive strike against a facility very early in its development, it is very difficult to assess what it would have been used for. This is the great problem of preemption: it is impossible to fully ascertain what would have happened in the absence of the preemptive action, and the consequences of the action could prove more dangerous than what would have happened otherwise. Israel's strike against Iraq's Osirak facility in 1981 is a striking parallel. Initially condemned by the U.S. under the Reagan Administration, the strike has now been regarded as a very successful example of preemption because it set back Saddam Hussein's ability to develop a nuclear weapon by several years. The facility was years away from being completed, so it would have been probably close to a decade before it could have churned out weapons-grade nuclear material. Whether this inspires Syria to launch a renewed crash program or to abandon the pursuit of nuclear technology out of fear of further reprisal remains to be seen, and Assad's course of action will go a long way in determining whether the Israeli attack was justified.
Syria's near-silence on the matter suggests that there may be an element of "Gotcha!" involved, as one would expect there to be a torrent of outrage stemming from the country after an Israeli incursion into Syrian territory to attack one of its installations. There hasn't been any staging of propaganda events, "death to Israel" marches, or wide-ranging proclamations from any of the other countries in the region. Now, Syria may not be the most well-liked Middle East dictatorial regime, but there is generally a strong camaraderie when it comes to Israel and any cross-border action it may undertake. Damasacus has been on Washington's bad list for a long time, though, and that may be inspiring the region's more pragmatic leaders to keep Assad at arm's length and not do much of anything to strengthen his hand. A lot of people were quietly urging back in 2003 for the Bush Administration to send a couple of battalions on a little detour to topple Assad while the invasion of Iraq was ongoing, and I distinctly recall one of my old professors musing that Assad had to be "shitting his pants" at the prospect of the Iraq war. So perhaps that helps to explain why Syria and its assumed friends haven't been making too much of a stink about the Israeli strike.
This is going to be a situation worth monitoring in the coming weeks. There may or may not be more information coming out, as the intelligence communities have been very tight-lipped about the particulars of the strike, but if they do decide to let news out, it will hopefully clarify the picture a little and remove some of the murky details. If it can be demonstrably proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the Syrian facility was to be used for illicit nuclear activities, this will be a blow in favour of nuclear non-proliferation and a check on the ledger for preemption. Only time will tell.

No comments: