Ten years ago, the Israeli Air Force destroyed the Al-Kibar facility in the Deir Al-Azour province of eastern Syria. According to Israeli intelligence, the facility, located in the middle of the desert, was a nuclear reactor which had yet to be activated.
Israel was working on a timeline. It was imperative that a strike be carried out before activation. The reactor was located near the Euphrates River and the risk of environmental and health damage of blowing up an active reactor was grave. As the Defense Minister at the time, Amir Peretz, put it: “Israel would be blamed for a century for any Arab child born with genetic mutations.”
Also, in an effort to camouflage its intentions, the Syrian military had been careful not to place anti-aircraft missiles nearby. Israeli decision-makers were concerned that if Syria became aware a strike was being planned it would decide to take precautions.
The Israeli government, under the premiership of Ehud Olmert at the time, appealed to the Bush administration in Washington in the hope that it might deal with the problem. The matter was discussed by the US National Security Council. Bush officials claim their preference was to take the matter to the United Nations Security Council. However, it is quite possible that the administration decided on a course of allowing Israel to destroy the reactor, providing itself with plausible deniability while at the same time removing a serious problem. The US had good reason to avoid an attack. It was attempting to build a new status quo in Iraq which would allow it to withdraw its forces and leave a stable region as its legacy.
Once it had decided to take action, Israel’s strategy was to attempt to destroy the reactor without leading to a general conflagration with Syria and its allies. Olmert succinctly described this as “no core, no war.” What was required was a strike strong enough to take out the reactor but not so devastating as to force the Assad regime to respond. It was also determined that if Israel maintained plausible deniability and did not confirm its role, it would be easier for Syria to forego a reaction.
It has often been justifiably noted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a destabilizing element in an already tumultuous region. However, Israel has also played a role in maintaining regional stability.
These strikes were not a one-off, however; indeed, they are part of what is sometimes called “the Begin Doctrine,” named after Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who once said that “on no account shall we permit an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against the people of Israel. We shall defend the citizens of Israel in good time and with all the means at our disposal.” This is a strategy with wide regional implications.
Israel will keep the bomb in the basement and restrain from threatening or bullying anyone with its arms
The doctrine is inherently unfair. Israel has nuclear capability (in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty) and is not willing to allow other states in the region to develop a counterpoint. As such, the approach is an aggressive assertion of hegemony. Like all successful exercises of power, though, there is a commensurate element of restraint involved. Israel has maintained opacity with regard to the nature of its nuclear arsenal and has obligated itself not to “introduce” nuclear weapons to the region.
In other words, it will keep the bomb in the basement and restrain from threatening or bullying anyone with its arms. It has also thus far done an admirable job in preventing major blowback from its attacks by using a minimal amount of force. A final measure of restraint has been the maintenance of plausible deniability.
The incident the Al-Kibar strike recalled most was the Israeli Air Force strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, in 1981. At the time, the international community condemned the attack as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. The US also opposed the strike as it was then backing Iraq against its Iranian nemesis. Yet there is no question the attack made the region a safer place. Who is to say that Saddam Hussein would not have used nuclear weapons in the Iran-Iraq War? Would the US have been able to liberate Kuwait from his clutches in Desert Storm if the dictator had an arsenal of nuclear weapons?
Similarly, the Syrian regime, which has had trouble governing and maintaining stability, would have had an operational nuclear program if Israel had not taken action. This would have caused a major international crisis when Syria began to lose control of part of its territory to Islamic fundamentalist groups. It is not hard to imagine massive US intervention in Syria to prevent nuclear weapons falling into the hands of ISIS or AL-Nusra.
In addition, the control Iran has over the Syrian government would have given Tehran access to its capabilities and rendered any Iran Nuclear Deal deal moot. Finally, Syria has proved willing to use weapons of mass destruction against its own citizens. The attack definitely bolstered regional stability in the long run.
Israel has a unique position and role in the region. No other regional actor has the military and intelligence capabilities to take on a leading role in regional military enforcement. And as the events of 2007 and 1981 prove, none of the great powers share Israel’s readiness to risk its assets for regional stability. It is high time we looked at Israeli security not as coming at the expense of its neighbors but rather as potentially complementary to the well-being of the region as a whole.