Intent and capability
Former Spook reasons his way through the muddle of news speculation about what target Israel bombed in Syria. The key idea is to recognize that references to a possible Syrian nuclear program and an Iranian/Syrian missile threat are two different programs, though obviously they may intersect at some point.
So far, both the Israelis (and the U.S.) are being vague about what's been observed. If we had to speculate--and we must emphasize that it's only speculation at this point--we'd guess that Israeli analysts have detected something that resembles a nuclear storage facility. We base our conclusion on this key point: it takes years to build a nuclear R&D facility like Natanz or Esfahan in Iran, and there have been no reports of similar construction projects in Syria. On the other hand, a nuclear storage complex can be built much more quickly, and those facilities (regardless of location) have certain features in common. What might be in that facility--assuming it exists and has a "nuclear function"--is anyone's guess.
We must also emphasize that the reported nuclear facility was apparently not the target for last week's IDF strike. Israel's Ynet News, quoting a Israeli-Arab newspaper published in Nazareth, said that the raid targeted "a Syrian-Iranian missile base in northern Syria that was financed by Iran...it appears that the base was completely destroyed." The paper based its reporting on anonymous Israeli sources.
But that claim is also rather odd. The area described by the newspaper (The Assennara) is home to a major Syrian SCUD facility, built almost entirely underground and extensively hardened. Complete destruction of the base would require exceptionally accurate bombing with penetrating weapons, and quite possibly, a follow-on ground assault. While the Israelis are capable of staging such an attack, the Syria base is heavily defended, and would present an exceptionally challenging target.
By comparison, other sources (including those U.S. officials quoted in the Times) place the target in northeastern Syria, not far from the Iraqi border. That would represent a logical area for training Hizballah crews on long-range rockets supplied by Iran. The area is remote, and the Syrians apparently thought it was relatively immune to Israeli attack (until last week). A less-hardened missile base or logistics facility would be easier to target and destroy, resulting in that "hole in the desert" claimed by IDF sources.
Former Spook's analysis coincides with my guesses in the previous thread (look in comments). But I would like to add this. If either the reports of a Syrian nuclear program and or a missile base (which can only have the purpose of bombarding Israel) are true then the implications are very serious. They are so serious that, if true, they would take the recent conflict in Lebanon and Washington's political obsession with Iraq and catching Bin Laden off center stage and make them supporting characters in a larger, deadlier play.
The existence of either facility strongly suggests that Iran and Syria have a strategic plan to dominate in the Middle East and to seriously threaten Israel. This would be a major, maybe even existential challenge, to the United States. At the minimum a US which lost the Middle East would be in a far more vulnerable position than it is today. But does the threat exist? There is not enough publicly available evidence to estimate enemy intent with certainty but there is sufficient proof to make finding out a top priority.
These developments can potentially change the strategic outlook completely. They would discredit the "Peace Process" and all efforts at regional "engagement". If both Syria and Iran are bent on hostilities, positions in Iraq and Afganistan would become immeasurably valuable assets instead of the liabilities they are portrayed to be. Indeed, the case for regarding them as assets rises in proportion to the effort the hostile forces to evict America from them.
But it will be far from trivial to reach a bipartisan "finding" on the intent of Syria and Iran. The interpretation of intelligence has become seriously politicized in Washington. Assertions that Syria is embarked on a nuclear program will be greeted with disbelief. Evidence counts for nothing when evidence is not accepted. And even "evidence" must be interpreted. The peace lobby may actually regard a missile base or nuclear program as "proof" that America and Israel have made Syria and Iran too nervous; that appeasement is more than ever required.
Past equivocations and incompetent analysis by intelligence agencies have harmed their reputations gravely. The question of whether or not to accept a regional threat is brewing will be a classic case of decision-making under uncertainty. We will have indications. We will have ambiguous evidence. We will be confounded by disinformation. Things will be uncertain an we will be politically divided. But America will have to decide on a course of action -- or inaction -- all the same. Historical decisions are normally made under uncertainty and imperfect information; the need to act in the "fog of war" has been the lot of commanders through history. What do Syria and Iran have in mind? That is the question which the clanking political machinery in Washington has to answer for itself.