Together with perhaps a million other inquiring minds who want to know, I am still trying to figure out what happened over Dayr az Zawr in northern Syria on Sept. 6. And even more, what happened on the ground.
Officially—which is to say, the story carried in the mainstream media—some Israeli planes strayed into Syrian airspace, were duly shot at, and then flew home. The Syrian account mentioned that they dropped some bombs, over uninhabited territory, but explained this as shedding weight so they could flee faster. The Israeli account adds no details at all. This is the more odd because, usually, a journalist or anyone else has no trouble getting more information out of the Israelis. Both inside and outside the military, the Israelis are a candid lot, and what happens backstage is quickly in the newspapers. But in this case, the only people who seem to know are the pilots of the aircraft, and a list of very senior commanders and politicians, who could be counted on the fingers of one hand. And they are not talking.
Some facts, however, speak for themselves. Three days before this incident, a shipload of “cement” was landed at the Syrian port of Tartus. The flag on that ship was North Korean. It is improbable that Syria imports cement from that distance, let alone from a country that has trouble supplying even itself with that substance. North Korea has instead been a constant supplier of missile technology and parts to Syria, Iran, and other rogue Middle Eastern powers (Libya, for instance), and is one of Iran’s principal sources of nuclear technology. And as North Korea is presently under tremendous pressure to abandon its nuclear program and allow known nuclear sites to be inspected, an alternative cargo has been postulated.
That alternative would be nuclear goods for Syria directly, or for transshipment to Iran. And, speculation along this line tended to be confirmed immediately, when the short list of the usual countries protesting any Israeli “overflight” included not only Iran, but North Korea. No one had accused them until the fools stepped forward to accuse themselves.
None of the vociferously protesting countries gave hints to what the Israelis had hit, for the plausible reason that none has an interest in letting the world know. But we do also know that both Iran and North Korea sent teams, apparently to assess the damage, immediately after the Israeli “overflight.”
As I have elaborately hinted above, I do not have special sources of my own, but am inclined to believe the Israelis performed an “Osirak II.” (The reader will recall that Israeli warplanes took out the Osirak nuclear testing complex at Al Tuwaitha, Iraq, in a surprise attack in 1981, saving the world from the spectre of a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein.) That is to say, they knew something exceptionally lethal had been landed on Syrian soil, and by eliminating it they have again saved, however indirectly, a large number of human lives.
The alternative, that it was just more short- and medium-range missiles for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, does not wash. The hard truth is that Hezbollah have been able to re-arm themselves, from Iran through Syria, at least to the levels preceding the last Israeli-Lebanese entanglement, under the noses of United Nations “peacekeepers,” and without any significant intervention from Israel or another interested party. Just as the Iranians have been able to arm insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan with the powerful and often fairly sophisticated devices they use to blow up local civilians and troops from the U.S. and Canada and elsewhere—without, so far, any risk of reprisal. It follows that any Israeli airstrike was against a target on a bigger scale.
It further follows, I think, that much of the war in the Middle East is going offstage, curiously in the interest of all parties. For what we’ve found in the West is that the “peace movement” only responds to what is presented in the mainstream media. It makes a certain amount of sense, today as during imperial frontier conflicts in the past, to keep as much as possible out of the news. Indeed, one of the mistakes of Vietnam, repeated in Iraq, was giving remarkably open access and full briefings to the media—when for all practical purposes the reporting has been of assistance only to the enemy. (It is with some pain that I admit that, being a journalist myself.)