TEL AVIV – The IDF confirmed Wednesday that it carried out the 2007 airstrike in northeastern Syria that destroyed a nuclear reactor, ending a decade of secrecy over one the most daring military operations in recent history.
Israel was widely believed to have been behind the Sept. 6, 2007 airstrike, although it never commented publicly on it, with local media under censorship frequently referring to the attribution with the disclaimer “according to foreign reports.”
The army said that eight F-15 fighter jets carried out the airstrikes against the facility in the Deir el-Zour region, 300 miles northeast of Damascus, destroying a site that had been discovered in routine satellite scans of the country. Then-head of military intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin persuaded Mossad chief Meir Dagan to send agents to garner conclusive intelligence testifying to the reactor’s existence.
The incident marks the second time that Israel has applied the Begin Doctrine, which was cemented during former prime minister Menachem Begin’s tenure and calls for the military to destroy any enemy’s nuclear capabilities. The first time the doctrine was put in to practice was the bombing of Iraq’s nascent nuclear reactor in 1981, ordered by Begin, a strike that was later credited with preventing Sadaam Hussein from acquiring WMDs.
The Deir el-Zour site had been in development for years and was slated to begin operating at the end of 2007. It contained a graphite-moderated reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, similar to North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility, Israeli and American intelligence showed. North Korea was also credited with teaching Syria how to manufacture the plutonium.
“The motivation of our enemies has grown in recent years, but so too the might of the IDF,” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Wednesday. “Everyone in the Middle East would do well to internalize this equation.”
It was not immediately clear why Israel chose to go public at this stage, although some have speculated that it could be a warning to Iran.
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said that the airstrike sends a message to Israel’s enemies.
“The message of the attack on the reactor in 2007 is that Israel will not accept the construction of a capability that threatens the existence of the State of Israel. That was the message in ’81. That was the message in 2007. And that is the message to our enemies for the future,” he said in a statement.
The strike, which took less than four hours in total, constituted a resounding success from Israel’s point of view since it destroyed the site and strengthened deterrence while preventing all-out war.
Air force commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin said that given the situation in Syria today, it was extremely fortunate that Israel struck when it did. He noted that the area of the site was later captured by the Islamic State terror group.
“Imagine what situation we would be in today if there was a nuclear reactor in Syria,” Norkin said. “Israel’s decision to destroy the reactor is one of the most important decisions taken here in the last 70 years.”
In his memoir, former President George W. Bush said Israel first requested that the U.S. carry out the strike, but after the Pentagon refused it carried out the strike itself.
Bush said that the “execution of the strike made up for the confidence I had lost in the Israelis during the Lebanon war,” and added that then-prime minister Ehud Olmert made the decision to keep the strike under wraps.
“Olmert told me he wanted total secrecy. He wanted to avoid anything that might back Syria into a corner and force Assad to retaliate. This was his operation, and I felt an obligation to respect his wishes,” Bush wrote.