Operation Outside the Box Operation Outside the Box
: מבצע מחוץ לקופסה
, Mivtza Michutz La'Kufsa
) was an Israeli airstrike
on a suspected nuclear reactor,
referred to as the Al Kibar site (also referred to in IAEA documents as Dair Alzour), in the Deir ez-Zor region
which occurred just after midnight (local time) on 6 September 2007. The Israeli and U.S. governments did not announce the secret raids for seven months.
The White House
and Central Intelligence Agency
(CIA) subsequently confirmed that American intelligence had also indicated the site was a nuclear facility with a military purpose, though Syria denies this.
A 2009 International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) investigation reported evidence of uranium and graphite and concluded that the site bore features resembling an undeclared nuclear reactor. IAEA was initially unable to confirm or deny the nature of the site because, according to IAEA, Syria failed to provide necessary cooperation with the IAEA investigation.
Syria has disputed these claims.
Nearly four years later, in April 2011 during the Syrian Civil War
, the IAEA officially confirmed that the site was a nuclear reactor.
Israel did not acknowledge the attack until 2018.
The attack reportedly followed Israeli top-level consultations with the Bush Administration
After realizing that the US was not willing to bomb the site after being told so by U.S. President George W. Bush
, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
decided to adhere to the 1981 Begin Doctrine
and unilaterally strike to prevent a Syrian nuclear weapons capability, despite serious concerns about Syrian retaliation. In stark contrast to the doctrine's prior usage against Iraq
, the airstrike against Syria did not elicit international outcry. A main reason is that Israel maintained total and complete silence regarding the attack, and Syria covered up its activities at the site and did not cooperate fully with the IAEA. The international silence may have been a tacit recognition of the inevitability of preemptive attacks on "clandestine nuclear programs in their early stages." If true, the Begin Doctrine has undoubtedly played a role in shaping this global perception.
The attack pioneered the use of Israel's electronic warfare
as IAF electronic warfare (EW) systems took over Syria's air defense systems, feeding them a false sky-picture
for the entire period of time that the Israeli fighter jets needed to cross Syria, bomb their target and return.
On 6 March 2017, the Kibar nuclear site was captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces
– a U.S.-backed coalition of Kurdish and Arab militia fighters
– from a retreating ISIL force in northern Deir Ezzor province.
In 2001, the Mossad
, Israel's external intelligence service, was profiling newly inducted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
. Visits by North Korean
dignitaries, which focused on advanced arms deliveries, were noticed. Aman
, Israel's military intelligence
department, suggested nuclear arms were being discussed, but the Mossad dismissed this theory. In spring 2004, U.S. intelligence reported multiple communications between Syria and North Korea, and traced the calls to a desert location called al-Kibar. Unit 8200
, Israel's signals intelligence
and codebreaking unit, added the location to its watch list.
The Daily Telegraph
, citing anonymous sources, reported that in December 2006, a top Syrian official (according to one article this was the head of the Atomic Energy Commission of Syria, Ibrahim Othman
) arrived in London
under a false name. The Mossad had detected a booking for the official in a London hotel, and dispatched at least ten undercover agents to London. The agents were split into three teams. One group was sent to Heathrow Airport
to identify the official as he arrived, a second to book into his hotel, and a third to monitor his movements and visitors. Some of the operatives were from the Kidon Division, which specializes in assassinations, and the Neviot Division, which specializes in breaking into homes, embassies, and hotel rooms to install bugging devices. On the first day of his visit, he visited the Syrian embassy and then went shopping. Kidon operatives closely followed him, while Neviot operatives broke into his hotel room and found his laptop. A computer expert then installed software that allowed the Mossad to monitor his activities on the computer. When the computer material was examined at Mossad headquarters, officials found blueprints and hundreds of pictures of the Kibar facility in various stages of construction, and correspondence. One photograph showed North Korean nuclear official Chon Chibu
meeting with Ibrahim Othman, Syria's atomic energy agency director. Though the Mossad had originally planned to kill the official in London, it was decided to spare his life following the discovery.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
was notified. The following month, Olmert formed a three-member panel to report on Syria's nuclear program. The CIA was also informed and the American intelligence network joined the quest for more information.
Six months later, Brigadier-General Yaakov Amidror
, one of the panel's members, informed Olmert that Syria was working with North Korea and Iran
on a nuclear facility. Iran had funneled $1 billion to the project, and planned on using the Kibar facility to replace Iranian facilities if Iran was unable to complete its uranium enrichment program.
In July 2007, an explosion occurred
, northern Syria. The official Sana news agency said 15 Syrian military personnel were killed and 50 people were injured. The agency reported only that "very explosive products" blew up after a fire broke out at the facility. The edition of 26 September of Jane's Defence Weekly
claimed that the explosion happened during tests to weaponise a Scud-C
missile with mustard gas
A senior U.S. official told ABC News
that, in early summer 2007, Israel had discovered a suspected Syrian nuclear facility, and that the Mossad
then "managed to either co-opt one of the facility's workers or to insert a spy posing as an employee" at the suspected Syrian nuclear site, and through this was able to get pictures of the target from on the ground."
In mid August 2007, Israeli commandos from the Sayeret Matkal
reconnaissance unit covertly raided the suspected Syrian nuclear facility and brought nuclear material back to Israel. Two helicopters ferried twelve commandos to the site in order to get photographic evidence and soil samples. The commandos were probably dressed in Syrian uniforms. Although the mission was successful, it had to be aborted earlier than planned after the Israelis were spotted by Syrian soldiers. Soil analysis revealed traces of nuclear activity.
There was disagreement between CIA director Michael Hayden
and Mossad director Meir Dagan
about whether the site should be bombed. Hayden was fearful that this would cause an all-out war, but Dagan was sure that Assad would not react, so long as the bombing was done covertly and not publicized.
Anonymous sources reported that once material was tested and confirmed to have come from North Korea
, the United States
approved an Israeli attack on the site.
Senior U.S. officials later claimed that they were not involved in or approved the attack, but were informed in advance.
In his memoir Decision Points
, President George W. Bush
wrote that Prime Minister Olmert requested that the U.S. bomb the Syrian site, but Bush refused, saying the intelligence was not definitive on whether the plant was part of a nuclear weapons program. Bush claimed that Olmert did not ask for a green light for an attack and that he did not give one, but that Olmert acted alone and did what he thought was necessary to protect Israel.
Another report indicated that Israel planned to attack the site as early as 14 July, but some U.S. officials, including Secretary of StateCondoleezza Rice
, preferred a public condemnation of Syria, thereby delaying the military strike until Israel feared the information would leak to the press. The Sunday Times
also reported that the mission was "personally directed" by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak
Three days before the attack, a North Korean cargo ship carrying materials labeled as cement docked in the Syrian port of Tartus
An Israeli online data analyst, Ronen Solomon, found an internet trace for the 1,700-tonne cargo ship, the Al Hamed
, which allegedly was docked at Tartus on 3 September.
By 25 April 2008 the ship was under the flag of the Comoros
Several newspapers reported that Iranian general Ali Reza Asgari
, who had disappeared in February in a possible defection to the West, supplied Western intelligence with information about the site.
Alleged Syrian nuclear reactor, after it was destroyed by Israeli air strike
first reported that the airstrike targeted weapons "destined for Hezbollah
militants" and that the strike "left a big hole in the desert".
One week later, The Washington Post
reported that U.S. and Israeli intelligence gathered information on a nuclear facility constructed in Syria with North Korean aid, and that the target was a "facility capable of making unconventional weapons".
According to The Sunday Times
, there were claims of a cache of nuclear materials
from North Korea
On 14 October The New York Times
cited U.S. and Israeli military intelligence sources saying that the target had been a nuclear reactor
under construction by North Korean technicians, with a number of the technicians having been killed in the strike.
On 2 December The Sunday Times
quoted Uzi Even
, a professor at Tel Aviv University
and a founder of the Negev Nuclear Research Center
, saying that he believes that the Syrian site was built to process plutonium and assemble a nuclear bomb, using weapons-grade plutonium originally from North Korea. He also said that Syria's quick burial of the target site with tons of soil was a reaction to fears of radiation.
On 19 March 2009, Hans Rühle
, former chief of the planning staff of the German Defense Ministry
, wrote in the Swiss
daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung
that Iran was financing a Syrian nuclear reactor. Rühle did not identify the sources of his information. He wrote that U.S. intelligence had detected North Korean ship deliveries of construction supplies to Syria that started in 2002, and that the construction was spotted by American satellites in 2003, who detected nothing unusual, partly because the Syrians had banned radio and telephones from the site and handled communications solely by messengers. He said that "The analysis was conclusive that it was a North Korean-type reactor, a gas graphite model" and that "Israel estimates that Iran had paid North Korea between $1 billion and $2 billion for the project". He also wrote that just before the Israeli operation, a North Korean ship was intercepted en route to Syria with nuclear fuel rods.
The IAF's Special Electronic Missions Aircraft, which reportedly took part in the operation
Israel reportedly used electronic warfare to take over Syrian air-defenses and feed them a false-sky picture,
for the entire period of time that the Israeli fighter jets needed to cross Syria, bomb their target and return.
This technology which neutralized Syrian radars may be similar to the Suter airborne network attack system
. This would make it possible to feed enemy radar emitters with false targets, and even directly manipulate enemy sensors.
In May 2008, a report in IEEE Spectrum
cited European sources claiming that the Syrian air defense network had been deactivated by a secret built-in kill switch activated by the Israelis.
When the aircraft approached the site, the Shaldag commandos directed their targeting laser at the facility, and the F-15Is released their bombs. The facility was totally destroyed.
The Shaldag commandos were extracted, and all Israeli aircraft returned to base. On their way back to Israel, the aircraft flew over Turkey
and jettisoned fuel tanks over the Hatay
Immediately following the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
, explained the situation, and asked him to relay a message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
that Israel would not tolerate another nuclear plant, but that no further action was planned. Olmert said that Israel did not want to play up the incident and was still interested in peace with Syria, adding that if Assad chose not to draw attention to the incident, he would do likewise.
Israeli official statements
The first report about the raid came from CNN
. Israel initially did not comment on the incident, although Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
did say that "The security services and Israeli defence forces are demonstrating unusual courage. We naturally cannot always show the public our cards."
Israeli papers were banned from doing their own reporting on the airstrike.
On 16 September, the head of Israeli military intelligence
, Amos Yadlin
, told a parliamentary committee that Israel regained its "deterrent capability".
The first public acknowledgment by an Israeli official came on 19 September, when opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu
said that he had backed the operation and congratulated Prime Minister Olmert.
Netanyahu advisor Uzi Arad
later told Newsweek
"I do know what happened, and when it comes out it will stun everyone."
On 17 September, Prime Minister Olmert announced that he was ready to make peace with Syria "without preset conditions and without ultimatums".
According to a poll done by the Dahaf Research Institute, Olmert's approval rating rose from 25% to 35% after the airstrike.
On 2 October 2007, the IDF confirmed the attack took place, following a request by Haaretz
to lift censorship; however, the IDF continued to censor details of the actual strike force and its target.
On 28 October, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Israeli cabinet
that he had apologized to Turkish
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
if Israel violated Turkish airspace. In a statement released to the press after the meeting he said: "In my conversation with the Turkish prime minister, I told him that if Israeli planes indeed penetrated Turkish airspace, then there was no intention thereby, either in advance or in any case, to—in any way—violate or undermine Turkish sovereignty, which we respect."
Abu Mohammed, a former major in the Syrian air force, recounted in 2013 that air defenses in the Deir ez-Zor region were told to stand down as soon as the Israeli planes were detected heading to the reactor.
According to a WikiLeaks
cable, the Syrian government placed long-range missiles armed with chemical warheads on high alert after the attack but did not retaliate, fearing an Israeli nuclear counterstrike.
On 27 April 2008, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
, making his first public comments about the raid, dismissed the allegations that it was a nuclear site which was attacked as false: "Is it logical? A nuclear site did not have protection with surface to air defenses? A nuclear site within the footprint of satellites in the middle of Syria in an open area in the desert?" Independent experts, however, suggested that Syria did not fortify its suspected reactor in order to avoid drawing attention and because the building was not yet operational. Besides a nuclear program, Syria is believed to have extensive arsenals, as well as biological and chemical warheads for its long-range missiles.
On 25 February 2009, IAEA officials reported that Ibrahim Othman, Syria's nuclear chief, told a closed IAEA technical meeting that Syria built a missile facility on the site.
No Arab government besides Syria has formally commented on 6 September incident. The Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram
commented on the "synchronized silence of the Arab world." Neither the Israeli nor Syrian government has offered a detailed description of what occurred. Outside experts and media commentators have filled the data vacuum by offering their own diverse interpretations about what precisely happened that night. Western commentators took the position that the lack of official non-Syrian Arab condemnations of Israel's action, threats of retaliation against Israel, or even professions of support for the Syrian government or people must imply that their governments tacitly supported the Israeli action. Even Iranian officials have not formally commented on the Israeli attack or Syria's reactions.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates
was asked if North Korea was helping Syria in the nuclear realm, but replied only that "we are watching the North Koreans very carefully. We watch the Syrians very carefully."
The North Korean government strongly condemned Israel's actions: "This is a very dangerous provocation little short of wantonly violating the sovereignty of Syria and seriously harassing the regional peace and security."
On 17 October, in reaction to the UN press office's release of a First Committee, Disarmament and International Security
meeting's minutes that paraphrased an unnamed Syrian representative as saying that a nuclear facility was hit by the raid, Syria denied the statement, adding that "such facilities do not exist in Syria." However state-run Syrian Arab News Agency
said that media reports had misquoted the Syrian diplomat.
On the same day, the IAEA's Mohamed ElBaradei
criticized the raid, saying that "to bomb first and then ask questions later [...] undermines the system and it doesn't lead to any solution to any suspicion."
The IAEA had been observing the disabling of the DPRK Yongbyon nuclear facilities
since July 2007, and was responsible for the containment and surveillance of the fuel rods and other nuclear materials from there.
Resolution 674, introduced on 24 September 2007, expressed "unequivocal support ... for Israel's right to self defense in the face of an imminent nuclear or military threat from Syria." The bill had 15 cosponsors, but never reached a vote.
On 26 October,The New York Times
published satellite photographs showing that the Syrians had almost entirely removed all remains of the facility. U.S. intelligence sources noted that such an operation would usually take up to a year to complete and expressed astonishment at the speed with which it was carried out. Former weapons inspector David Albright
believed that the work was meant to hide evidence of wrongdoing.
In his memoir Decision Points
, President George W. Bush
claimed that the strike confirmed that Syria had been pursuing a nuclear-weapons program and that "intelligence is not an exact science", relating that while he had been told that U.S. analysts only had low confidence that the facility was part of a nuclear-weapons program, surveillance after the airstrike showed parts of the destroyed facility being covered up. Bush wrote that "if the facility was really just an innocent research lab, Syrian President Assad would have been screaming at the Israelis on the floor of the United Nations". He also wrote that in a telephone conversation with Olmert, he suggested that the operation be kept secret for a while and then made public to isolate the Syrian government, but Olmert asked for total secrecy, wanting to avoid anything that might force Syrian retaliation.
In April 2011, after a lengthy investigation the IAEA officially confirmed that the site was a nuclear reactor.
In 2012, the Non-aligned Movement adopted a statement according to which: 'The Heads of State or Government underscored the Movement's principled position concerning non-use or threat of use of force against the territorial integrity of any State. In this regard, they condemned the Israeli attack against a Syrian facility on 6 September 2007, which constitutes a flagrant violation of the UN Charter and welcomed Syria's cooperation with the IAEA in this regard’ (NAM Final Document 2012/Doc.1/Rev.2, para 176).
Release of intelligence
On 10 October 2007, The New York Times
reported that the Israelis had shared the Syrian strike dossier with Turkey. In turn, the Turks traveled to Damascus and confronted the Syrians with the dossier, alleging a nuclear program. Syria denied this with vigor, saying that the target was a storage depot for strategic missiles.
On 25 October 2007, The New York Times
reported that two commercial satellite photos taken before and after the raid showed that a square building no longer exists at the suspected site.
On 27 October 2007, The New York Times
reported that the imaging company Geoeye
released an image of the building from 16 September 2003, and from this security analyst John Pike
estimated that construction began in 2001. "A senior intelligence official" also told The New York Times
that the U.S. has observed the site for years by spy satellite.
Subsequent searches of satellite imagery discovered that an astronaut aboard the International Space Station had taken a picture of the area on 5 September 2002. The image, though of low resolution, is good enough to show that the building existed as of that date.
A screenshot of a CIA computer model of the Syrian nuclear reactor at Al Kibar.
On 11 January 2008, DigitalGlobe
released a satellite photo showing that a building similar to the suspected target of the attack had been rebuilt in the same location.
However, an outside expert said that it was unlikely to be a reactor and could be cover for excavation of the old site.
On 1 April 2008, Asahi Shimbun
reported that Ehud Olmert told Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda
during a meeting on 27 February that the target of the strike was "nuclear-related facility that was under construction with know-how and assistance from North Korean technicians dispatched by Pyongyang."
On 24 April 2008, the CIA released a video
and background briefing,
which it claims shows similarities between the North Korean nuclear reactor in Yongbyon and the one in Syria which was bombed by Israel.
According to a U.S. official, there did not appear to be any uranium at the reactor, and although it was almost completed, it could not have been declared operational without significant testing.
A statement from the White House Press Secretary
on 24 April 2008, followed the briefing given to some Congressional committees that week. According to the statement, the administration believed that Syria had been building a covert reactor with North Korean assistance that was capable of producing plutonium
, and that the purpose was non-peaceful. It was also stated that the IAEA was being briefed with the intelligence.
The IAEA confirmed receipt of the information, and planned to investigate. It was critical of not being informed earlier, and described the unilateral use of force as "undermining the due process of verification".
Syrian officials, however, denied any North Korean involvement in their country. According to BBC News
, Syria's ambassador to the UK, Sami Khiyami
, dismissed the allegations as ridiculous. "We are used to such allegations now, since the day the United States has invaded Iraq – you remember all the theatrical presentations concerning the weapons of mass destruction
in Iraq." Mr Khiyami said the facility was a deserted military building that had "nothing to do with a reactor".
On 21 March 2018, Israel formally acknowledged the operation and released newly declassified materials including photographs and cockpit video of the airstrike.
Initial skepticism about the US and Israeli claims
Despite the release of intelligence information from the American and Israeli sources, the attack on the Syrian site was initially controversial. Some commentators had argued that at the time of the attack the site had no obvious barbed wire or air defenses that would normally ring a sensitive military facility. Mohamed ElBaradei
had previously stated that Syria's ability to construct and run a complex nuclear process was doubtful—speaking ahead of the IAEA inspection of the alleged Syrian nuclear site, which had been demolished, he said: "It is doubtful we will find anything there now, assuming there was anything in the first place." The New York Times
reported that after the publishing of US intelligence data on 24 April, "two senior intelligence officials acknowledged that the evidence had left them with no more than "low confidence" that Syria was preparing to build a nuclear weapon. However, while they said that there was no sign that Syria had built an operation to convert the spent fuel from the plant into weapons-grade plutonium
, they had told President Bush
last year that they could think of no other explanation for the reactor."
BBC Diplomatic Correspondent Jonathan Marcus commented on the release of the CIA video that "Briefings about alleged weapons of mass destruction programmes have a lot to live down in the wake of the US experience in Iraq".
On 19 November 2008, IAEA released a report
which said the Syrian complex bore features resembling those of an undeclared nuclear reactor and UN inspectors found "significant" traces of uranium at the site. The report said the findings gleaned from inspectors' visit to the site in June were not enough to conclude a reactor was once there. It said further investigation and greater Syrian transparency were needed. The confidential nuclear safeguards report said Syria would be asked to show to inspectors debris and equipment whisked away from the site after the September 2007 Israeli air raid.
On 19 February 2009, the IAEA reported that samples taken from the site revealed new traces of processed uranium. A senior UN official said additional analysis of the June find had found 40 more uranium particles, for a total of 80 particles, and described it as significant. He added that experts were analyzing minute traces of graphite and stainless steel found at and near the site, but said that it was too early to relate them to nuclear activity. The report noted Syria's refusal to allow agency inspectors to make follow-up visits to sites suspected of harboring a secret nuclear program despite repeated requests from top agency officials.
Syria disputed these claims. According to Syria's IAEA representative Othman, there would have been a large amount of graphite had the building been a nuclear reactor. Othman continued, "They found 80 particles in half a million tonnes of soil. I don't know how you can use that figure to accuse somebody of building such a facility."
In a November 2009 report, the IAEA stated that its investigation had been stymied due to Syria's failure to cooperate.
The following February, under the new leadership of Yukiya Amano
, the IAEA stated that "The presence of such [uranium] particles points to the possibility of nuclear-related activities at the site and adds to questions concerning the nature of the destroyed building. ... Syria has yet to provide a satisfactory explanation for the origin and presence of these particles".
Syria disputed these allegations, saying that there is not a military nuclear program in the country and that it has the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, especially in the field of nuclear medicine. Syria's foreign minister said, "We are committed to the non-proliferation agreement between the agency and Syria and we (only) allow inspectors to come according to this agreement. ... We will not allow anything beyond the agreement because Syria does not have a military nuclear program. Syria is not obliged to open its other sites to inspectors."
Syria maintains that the natural uranium found at the site came from Israeli missiles.
On 28 April 2010, the head of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano
declared for the first time that the target was indeed the covert site of a future nuclear reactor, countering Syrian assertions.
The site during Syrian Civil War
On 22 March 2018, the Israel Defense Forces
(IDF) officially took responsibility for destroying a nuclear reactor built in the northeastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zor in 2007 after a decade of ambiguity.
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