Israel's Strike on Syrian Reactor Offers Few Lessons on Iran

Article Summary
In an interview with Jacob Hale Russell, David Makovsky discusses Israel’s 2007 bombing of a Syrian nuclear installation and a potential Israeli attack on Iran's facilities. Makovsky says not to count on the apparent success in Syria repeating in Iran, and expresses concern about the lack of “political intimacy” between the US and Israeli leadership.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process, discussed his report on Israel’s secret 2007 bombing of a Syrian nuclear installation — and what the episode tells us about a potential Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The planning, execution and aftermath of Israel’s bombing of Syria’s Al Kibar reactor five years ago was described in elaborate detail this week by Makovsky in a New Yorker article.

With increasingly heated rhetoric between the US and Israel over Iran, Makovsky is concerned about the lack of “political intimacy” between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “No country is going to give another country an ironclad commitment for a war, nor should it,” Makovsky told Al-Monitor. “The question is, do [Israel and the US] have common yardsticks by which they can gauge Iranian behavior? At what part is the uranium program unacceptable if diplomacy doesn’t work?” Makovsky believes “history will condemn” Obama and Netanyahu if they can’t surpass their differences to determine a common yardstick on Iran.

The events described in Makovsky’s article have remained shrouded in speculation for the last five years in large part because Israel never publicly mentioned the bombing. According to Makovsky, this approach emerged out of advice from psychologists who had profiled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and told the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that “Assad might prefer to bury the matter” rather than face “the humiliation of having its nuclear ambitions exposed and thwarted by Israel.” That strategy apparently worked: Syria’s leaders never acknowledged that Israel had bombed a reactor, and Syria never retaliated.

Makovsky cautions against drawing easy analogies between the apparent success in Syria and the situation in Iran. Unlike in Syria, Iran’s nuclear ambitions are widely publicized and an attack would be unlikely to remain secret and avoid retaliation.

The full interview with Makovsky is below.

Al-Monitor What are the key points that emerged in your reporting about the events leading to the bombing of the Syrian reactor in 2007 that we didn’t know before?

Makovsky:  I thought it would be interesting to look at the internal American dynamics, internal Israeli dynamics and dynamics between [the] US and Israel … look at how this whole thing evolved over a fairly short time … This was a big event and it was kind of murky, and I wanted it demystified. … With all this talk about the US-Israel relationship as related to Iran, there was a decent literature related to the Iraq [reactor] bombing in 1981 that could help analysts inform their thinking … Here’s a second monumental event and here there was … virtually nothing. I thought it would be a fun project to talk to people on both sides who were knowledgeable and understand the dynamics on both sides.

Al-Monitor Part of your story concerns President Bush’s reluctance to commit the US to a prospective attack because the intelligence community marked its findings “low confidence,” in large part because they couldn’t locate a reprocessing plant in satellite imagery. What does that show about changes in the US intelligence process and policymakers’ use of intelligence?

Makovsky:  Iraq was a very traumatic event for American policy. … Here was the same administration that was accused of not going through all the processes that were needed to find out if there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They ended up feeling, more than … other administrations, that this couldn’t happen again.  The ghosts of Iraq were very much impacting the president. … It led to this very interesting situation where the US and Israel basically agreed on all the facts, but reached very different policy conclusions.

Al-Monitor Is there any doubt today that what Israel hit in Syria was a nuclear project? An IDF chief of staff, perhaps unsurprisingly, at least partly disavowed your report in the press.

Makovsky:  He deserves the humorous comment of the year award. … There is no doubt this is was a reactor. What was missing was the reprocessing plant, the weaponziation component. … Israel [believed] that America was overreacting to Iraq because it was creating a standard that was unreachable. Once you found the weaponziation component, the thing would have gone hot already. [Bombing it then] would have contaminated the Euphrates; there would be human tragedy, and Israel would be blamed. The American view, in light of Iraq [was] … we know it’s a reactor, there’s no other reason for it than weapons, but we can’t find it. Bush said, if you can’t tell me that, we can’t do it. It was a fascinating portrait of two countries not disagreeing about the information but reaching different policy conclusions.

Al-Monitor You report that in the US discussions of whether to attack Syria, Condoleezza Rice expressed a loss of confidence in the Israeli military after its 2006 war with Hezbollah. Does their experience in Syria have anything to show us about the likelihood of success of a prospective military strike by Israel against Iran, or is the Iranian situation too different?

Makovsky:  While there are some similarities, there are many differences. … The case of Syria was a complete secret, so you had an element of surprise. There was one site; it was plutonium. In the case of Iran, it’s not a reactor — it’s the enriched uranium sites, which are in different locations, including a site … outside of Qom which is in a mountain. I tried in the piece to be scrupulously cautious not to draw easy analogies. It does point to the importance of US and Israel coordinating their position, even if in the end they don’t agree on final action.

Al-Monitor Is there a risk policymakers, either in Israel or the US, will draw the wrong conclusions from the Syria lesson by stretching the analogy too far?

Makovsky:  There’s no substitute for political intimacy between leaders. I don’t think you can trade a war of words in the press. I was in Israel this week [and] I think that basically my interpretation is that there seems to be somewhat of a pullback in Israel [on attacking Iran] before the US elections. That doesn’t change the fundamentals, that Israel believes that time is running out. But at the same time [there is] pushback [against] Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak coming from other parts of the cabinet and in the public … The US is more capable [of successfully checking Iranian nuclear ambitions], but does the US have resolve to thwart this? … What are the criteria for the US [intervening in Iran] beyond November? I think there’s a legitimate desire between the US and Israel, behind closed doors, not in the glare of television cameras, to thrash it out. Do we look at this problem the same way, or … is it like 2007, where we come up with different policy prescriptions?

… No country is going to give another country an ironclad commitment for a war, nor should it. The question is, do they have common yardsticks by which they can gauge Iranian behavior? At what part is the uranium program unacceptable if diplomacy doesn’t work? … That’s an important conversation. There’s no substitute for the political intimacy at the very top of this bilateral relationship, and that intimacy is being tested now like it never was before. Instead of saying it’s gone off a cliff, I think there’s time for Obama and Netanyahu to deputize an aide on each side to see if they can come up with common metrics.

Al-Monitor How much does the particular relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, as perhaps contrasted against the Olmert-Bush relationship in 2007, affect this process?

Makovsky:  Synchronization is the fluke of history. It’s easier in history when we’ve had a more liberal Israeli prime minister and a liberal or conservative American president. When you have a conservative Israeli prime minister with a liberal American president that’s more difficult … [The] security relationship has never been better. At the same time, that has not translated into a political intimacy between the leaders themselves on policy issues. …

You get Israelis who say [recent political acrimony] is more based on political calculus than on genuine conviction; you get Americans who wonder, is Netanyahu close to the Republicans? … Whose fault is that? There’s probably enough blame to go around.

It’s an ironic moment of history that we’re at a moment of time on the Iranian nuclear issue when this relationship is being tested like never before. I believe history will condemn these two people if they are not able to rise above their differences and for the good of both their people hammer out some common yardsticks.

Al-Monitor How might the US approach the situation differently as a result of the 2007 bombing in Syria demonstrating Israel’s continued commitment to the Begin doctrine (denying nuclear capabilities to Israel’s enemies) and its willingness to act unilaterally?

Makovsky:  I have very little doubt, regardless of 2007, that if there is not this common ground, the Israeli fallback will be a unilateral approach … [It’s important for] the two leaders to find common ground to resolve their differences and to try to be on the same page.

Al-Monitor Any thoughts on how yesterday’s [September 13] events in Libya and the protests in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere will complicate US position in the Middle East further?

Makovsky:  There are some real questions about the US-Egyptian relationship right now. It should not have taken Morsi two days to condemn this assault on the US embassy. … It’s very important that that core bargain [of the US-Egyptian relationship] be reaffirmed … But I think there are some real questions here. I’m saying this as someone who believes there’s an American national interest in that relationship, an important relationship, and you don’t junk it … But there needs to be a very candid conversation between the president and Morsi about what are the foundations of this relationship going forward. We know the Egyptians want economic and military assistance, but we also want to know about their commitment to women’s rights, to minorities … Maybe until the American election that’s impossible because there’s a preoccupation in Washington, but I don’t see how this is going to be sustainable over time.

Found in: us, syrian, nuclear, iran, david makovsky