Radio-agriculture along the Euphrates
The UK Times Online provides further information on the mysterious Israeli strike in Syria.
It was just after midnight when the 69th Squadron of Israeli F15Is crossed the Syrian coast-line. On the ground, Syria’s formidable air defences went dead. An audacious raid on a Syrian target 50 miles from the Iraqi border was under way...
Andrew Semmel, a senior US State Department official, said Syria might have obtained nuclear equipment from “secret suppliers”, and added that there were a “number of foreign technicians” in the country.
Asked if they could be North Korean, he replied: “There are North Korean people there. There’s no question about that.” He said a network run by AQ Khan, the disgraced creator of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, could be involved.
But why would nuclear material be in Syria? Known to have chemical weapons, was it seeking to bolster its arsenal with something even more deadly?
Alternatively, could it be hiding equipment for North Korea, enabling Kim Jong-il to pretend to be giving up his nuclear programme in exchange for economic aid? Or was the material bound for Iran, as some authorities in America suggest?
According to Israeli sources, preparations for the attack had been going on since late spring, when Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad, presented Olmert with evidence that Syria was seeking to buy a nuclear device from North Korea.
The Israeli spy chief apparently feared such a device could eventually be installed on North-Korean-made Scud-C missiles.
The target was identified as a northern Syrian facility that purported to be an agricultural research centre on the Euphrates river. Israel had been monitoring it for some time, concerned that it was being used to extract uranium from phosphates.
The implication of the Times' story is that the target was some kind of warhead or component assembly facility disguised as an agricultural research station "50 miles" from the Iraqi border along the Euphrates. The further implication is that these components were going to be integrated with Scud-C missiles to provide a possible nuclear strike capability against Israel. In this scenario North Korea, Iran and Syria have somehow combined to create an unspecified threat. The Telegraph has details of how whatever it was that was struck reached the Syrian desert from North Korea.
An Israeli on-line data analyst, Ronen Solomon, found an internet trace for the 1,700-tonne cargo ship, Al Hamed, which showed the vessel started to off-load what Syrian officials categorised as "cement" on Sept 3.
This was three days before Israeli jets attacked a site in the north eastern desert of Syria, not far from its border with Iraq. ...
How likely is the story that there could be an atomic facility disguised as an agricultural research station? The Atomic Energy Commission of Syria (AECS) is mentioned as one of the agencies involved in agricultural research and is apparently very heavily involved in the study of agriculture.
The Department of Radio-Agriculture of the Atomic Energy Commission of Syria (AECS) -- This Department is the largest within the AEC; it mobilizes aroudn 25% of the total resources of the Commission. It currently employs 21 resarchers on duty (12 PhD, 2 MS, 7 BS) involved full-time in research, and another 7 young researchers now on study leaves abroad ... enjoys good physical resources (labs at Damascus and a small animal research station near the capital) and satisfactory government financial support. ... It's AR activities cover biotechnology applied to breeding, agronomy ... entomology, animal production ... and food preservation. It has developed relations with IAEA/Vienna, the Arab Atomic Energy Agency ... and with scientific institutions in India, the UK, Poland and Russia.
Little else seems to be available about the Radio-Agriculture Department of the Syrian AECS in English, except a profile of the agency available here. Information that the target was about 50 miles along the Euphrates from the Syrian border helps narrow the location of the target. The target, though unidentified is almost certainly served by a good road but built some distance away from the population centers along the Eurphates. It should also have characteristics which identify it as being a secure facility. There are three possible sites that may fit the bill. And I list them here for the reader to speculate upon. One at 34.741366°, 40.680395°some 50 kilometers from the Iraqi border and another two at 34.911583°, 40.827179° and 35.031401°, 40.701636° at about 50 miles. All three sites are protected by large rectangular berms or walls. For example, here is one that meets the criteria of good road, set back from the main population center and apparently secure.
It's also interesting to speculate how the reported Israeli strike may be related to recent warnings by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner that France must prepare for the possibility of war over Tehran's disputed nuclear program. Iran, Syria, North Korea and, off in the distance, Iraq. How are they connected? It's unlikely they are totally disconnected.