North by southwest by southeast by northsouth
Seymour Hersh has a long, rambling piece on what Israel struck in the Syrian desert. Don't expect to find out; but expect to be tantalized, offered hints of dark conspiracy, tempted by innuendo, and soaked in a persistent atmosphere of implied malice.
The language is almost Gothic. "Public statements were incomplete and contradictory ... circumstantial but seemingly damning ... the United States ... raised no objection to the bombing ... the Israeli government still declined ... unwilling to be quoted ... a former officer in the Israel Defense Forces with close contacts in Israeli intelligence approached me ... unconfirmable details ... "a very senior British ministerial source" had warned, "If people had known how close we came to World War Three that day there’d have been mass panic."
We wait with bated breath for the other slipper to fall. But the dance of the Seven Veils continues. "However, in three months of reporting for this article, I was repeatedly told by current and former intelligence, diplomatic, and congressional officials that they were not aware of any solid evidence of ongoing nuclear-weapons programs in Syria. ... This is all political. ... “There’s nothing that proves any perfidy involving the North Koreans.” ... his analysis by posing a series of rhetorical questions that assumed that the target was a nuclear facility ... “They never explicitly said it was nuclear, but they ruled out the possibility that it was a missile, chemical-warfare, or radar site. By a process of elimination, I was left with nuclear.”
So what did the IDF bomb in the desert? We read on waiting for Hersh to tell us what he knows. "Proliferation experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency and others in the arms-control community disputed Albright’s interpretation of the images. ... “The I.A.E.A. has been consistently telling journalists that it is skeptical about the Syrian nuclear story, but the reporters are so convinced.” Sometimes the atmospherics become almost ludicrous, with people implying the knowledge of secrets by mumbling incoherencies. "A second diplomat in Vienna acidly commented on the images: “A square building is a square building.”". Yes, Grasshopper, sometimes tree fall in wilderness without making sound. All your base are belong to us.
On he goes. "“We don’t have any proof of a reactor—no signals intelligence, no human intelligence, no satellite intelligence.” ... “It may have been a perception of a conviction, but there was something there” ... “The question of whether it was there or not is not that relevant anymore.” ... But there is evidence that the Al Hamed could not have been carrying sensitive cargo—or any cargo—from North Korea. International shipping is carefully monitored by Lloyd’s Marine Intelligence Unit, which relies on a network of agents as well as on port logs and other records."
Hersh even quotes that eminent intelligence source, Greenpeace to prove the Al Hamed carried nothing amiss. "Among the groups that keep track of international shipping is Greenpeace. Martini Gotjé, who monitors illegal fishing for the organization and was among the first to raise questions about the Al Hamed, told me, “I’ve been at sea for forty-one years, and I can tell you, as a captain, that the Al Hamed was nothing—in rotten shape. You wouldn’t be able to load heavy cargo on it, as the floorboards wouldn’t be that strong.”"
But why if Israel bombed nothing should Syria say nothing? Now Hersh rises to his true stature. "Faruq al-Shara, the Syrian Vice-President, told me. “Israel bombed to restore its credibility, and their objective is for us to keep talking about it. And by answering your questions I serve their objective. Why should I volunteer to do that?” ... “We will not get into the game of inviting foreign experts to visit every site that Israel claims is a nuclear facility,” Moustapha told me." Even the description of the attack is all hat and no cattle.
The attack was especially dramatic, the Syrian senior officer said, because the Israelis used bright magnesium illumination flares to light up the target before the bombing. Night suddenly turned into day, he told me. “When the people in the area saw the lights and the bombing, they thought there would be a commando raid,” the senior officer said. The building was destroyed, and his government eventually concluded that there were no Israeli ground forces in the area. But if Israelis had been on the ground seeking contaminated soil samples, the senior officer said, “they found only cement.”
Why magnesium flares should be dropped by supersonic attack aircraft is never explained. They have synthetic aperture radar to show them their targets. Why do they need to destroy their own night vision with flares? Or were they anti-missle countermeasures? Hersh doesn't say. "They found only cement." Were they building a basketball court? The reader can examine the rest of the story for himself. But he can guess how the Hersh tale ends: trailing off into China "with more questions than it answers". Isn't that the sophisticated way stories should end, with a mystery?
“He was telling the Chinese leadership that they’d better warn Iran that we can’t hold back Israel, and that the Iranians should look at Syria and see what’s coming next if diplomacy fails,” the person familiar with the discussion said. “His message was that the Syrian attack was in part aimed at Iran.”
There are days when I wonder how much of what passes for history is based on guys telling sea stories to journalists who are willing to buy them a cup of coffee. But I don't expect an answer to that rhetorical question. Or I'd give away the mystery.