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Israel admits striking Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007

Israel acknowledged publicly for the first time Wednesday that it struck a secret nuclear reactor in Syria 11 years a...

Posted: Mar 21, 2018 1:13 PM
Updated: Mar 21, 2018 1:13 PM

Israel acknowledged publicly for the first time Wednesday that it struck a secret nuclear reactor in Syria 11 years ago.

In the darkness of a late Wednesday night in September 2007, eight Israeli fighter jets streaked out of southern Israel, heading north. Two hours later, they reached their target in the Deir Ezzor region in eastern Syria -- a nondescript square building, tucked into a desert valley between rolling hills.

Shortly after midnight, precision-guided Israelis bombs, dropped by the F-16s and F-15s circling above, ripped apart the facility, sending a plume of smoke into the Syrian sky.

The strike destroyed the reactor, which was mere months from completion. If completed, the facility would have made Syria the first Arab nuclear state.

Israel has now fully acknowledged carrying out the operation, named "Outside the Box," to a handful of media organizations. But at the time, even the name of the operation was secret -- it was spoken of publicly as "Operation Orchard."

Cockpit video from the operation seen by CNN shows the bombs as they fall towards the reactor.

The release of the video comes amid growing concern in Israel about the years-long war unfolding next door in Syria.

It also comes as Israel wages a very public lobbying campaign against Iran -- a key Syrian ally -- and the deal to curtail its nuclear program.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged US President Donald Trump to "fix or nix it."

Speculating about the timing of the release, Aaron David Miller, a Washington, DC-based Middle East expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said, "I think the Israelis not only are trying to demonstrate deterrence but to make it unmistakably clear that they would strike again."

"To Russia, the Assad regime, and with respect to the Iranian nuclear program should the Iranians accelerate enrichment and seek to break out, that the Israelis are prepared to act against Iran as well."

Years of silence

Israel had been collecting top secret intelligence on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his nuclear ambitions since 2005. Two years later, their conclusion was that Syria was less than a year away from an operational nuclear reactor.

Syria has never acknowledged building a nuclear reactor at the site, instead insisting months later that it was a missile facility.

Speaking in 2008, Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Jaafari, mocked the accusation, saying, "Syria builds many buildings all over the country. Does that mean that any building we build should be a project or a design to be a nuclear center building?"

But pictures released by the US government in early 2008 that they say were taken inside the facility show the core of the reactor under construction.

The US said the gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor was built with assistance from North Korea, the only other country to have built such a plant in decades.

"It's not clear even now at what stage the Syrian nuclear reactor was in September [2007]," said Miller. "Some argue that as early as August that year, it was prepared to go online. But extraction of plutonium and developing a weapon, and weaponizing a warhead are two completely different things. But nonetheless, the Israelis acted."

The following summer, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors found traces of uranium at the site. Michael Hayden, who was CIA Director at the time, said the reactor could not produce electricity and was not for peaceful purposes.

For years, Israel stayed quiet about the strike -- which was carried out under then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert -- believing silence could prevent escalation with Syria. The army prepped for a possible war, but their calculation was correct -- tensions dissipated before they could turn into a conflagration.

It's not the first time Israel has carried out this type of operation -- in June 1981, fighter jets bombed the Osiraq nuclear facility in Iraq, crippling the country's nuclear program.

That strike established Israel's policy, known as the Begin Doctrine and named after then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, that Israel would carry out preemptive strikes against the development of weapons of mass destruction it considered a threat.

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