LONDON (Reuters) – A mysterious Israeli air raid in Syria may have been triggered by suspicions Damascus is building nuclear arms, to test new Syrian air defences or to stop Iranian weapons reaching Hezbollah, U.S. and Western officials say.
Amid widespread media speculation and a blanket silence from the Israeli and U.S. governments, however, nothing is certain.
Recalling the failure of U.S. forces to find much evidence of Iraqi secret weapons whose alleged development was part of the justification for the 2003 invasion, some analysts caution that there seems little evidence for suspicions against Syria.
An Israeli government spokesman again on Wednesday declined all comment on the incident, over which Syria has complained to the United Nations saying Israeli aircraft “dropped munitions”.
The U.S. government, for which Syria forms part of a hostile alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, has also declined to comment.
Israeli President Shimon Peres on Wednesday called the episode “spilt milk” but gave no details of what actually did happen and insisted that Israel still wanted peace with Syria.
But Israeli public radio stations, which like all media in the country are under military censorship, led Wednesday’s bulletins with a New York Times report that U.S. officials said Israel did carry out an air strike on September 6 and that U.S. officials believed Syria may have obtained nuclear material.
Israeli newspapers gave prominent coverage to a CNN report quoting U.S. sources saying that Israeli aircraft and possibly ground troops struck Iranian arms bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, with which Israel fought a war last year.
One U.S. diplomatic source told Reuters that Deir az-Zor, the northeastern area where Syria said the Israeli bombs caused no damage, was suspected by U.S. officials of being the focus of some form of cooperation on nuclear weapons with North Korea.
“The suspicion is that North Korea is outsourcing uranium enrichment to Damascus,” the diplomatic source said.
However, another U.S. official and former U.S. intelligence officials said this seemed unlikely and technically difficult.
The New York Times quoted an unnamed Pentagon official saying Israeli jets struck at least one target in northeastern Syria but adding that it was not clear what was hit.
One U.S. official source told Reuters there was some concern in Washington that North Korea had hidden uranium enrichment facilities abroad. But the source added that it seemed unlikely Pyongyang would risk derailing a deal with the United States to end its nuclear arms programme by sending material to Syria.
In Vienna, two senior diplomats familiar with the International Atomic Energy Agency said they knew of no serious suspicions of nuclear links between Syria and North Korea.
The New York Times quoted U.S. officials saying Israel’s most likely targets in Syria were Iranian arms for Hezbollah, against whom Israel fought a month-long war last year.
The paper also quoted one U.S. official saying Israel believed that North Korea was selling Syria nuclear material.
One former U.S. intelligence official who still follows the Middle East closely said he believed previous comments from Western diplomats in Damascus that last week’s incident centred on an attempt by Israel to test whether Syria’s air defences had been improved since purchases of new equipment from Russia.
The former official said he doubted Syria had significant secret weapons. Another former U.S. intelligence official said he was not aware of serious suspicions in Washington that Syria had a nuclear programme of any kind.