Wednesday, September 12, 2007

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 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.


Blogger Unknown said...

Iran is very forthright about their intentions. We don't need spooks to tell us that. Syria has been up to no good for as long as anyone can remember, but not as overtly and forthrightly as Iran. I guess the news here everyone is searching to confirm is has Syria been caught with their hand in the cookie jar?

9/12/2007 05:24:00 PM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...

My own view from the beginning has been that Iraq was the key to Iran. Of course others have argued that Iran has benefited more from OIF than the US has. But that is just another way of them asserting that America has been losing the war, not arguing that Iraq is unimportant to Iran.

However that may be the question everyone seems to want to bury is whether the US is in fact fighting an "Axis of Evil" which uses terrorism as one arm, but not the only arm (they can use nuclear weapons and conventional warfare too) for a geopolitical contest or whether we are really facing a big law enforcement challenge which can be addressed with a little diplomacy, some sanctions and a lot of goodwill money.

John McCain at a recent blogger interview said he would not challenge the patriotism of his left-wing colleagues. As a practical matter it probably serves no purpose. It's enough to say that many regard the problem differently. Kuchinich, for example, thinks we ought to apologize to Syria and pay them for any inconvenience we might have caused due to the troubles in Iraq. I am sure he thinks this sincerely.

But is it right? I happen to think that view is wrong. However democracy being what it is, a threat isn't perceived as a threat until it is seen that way. Politically we are a long way from consensus on whether or what threats we face.

9/12/2007 05:42:00 PM  
Blogger Pierre said...

And whats really odd is that absolutely no one is remembering the claims that Saddam had shipped his weapons to Syria. Probably because allowing Saddam to ship his weapons out of the country would be a tremendous embarrassement to all of those folks who claimed we had to go into Iraq to stop Saddam from shipping his weapons to terrorists.

U.S. Confirms Israeli Strikes Hit Syrian Targets…Saddam’s Nuclear Program Found?

9/12/2007 05:56:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I don't quite understand -- the piece appears to position itself (in part) as a matter of knowing the intent of certain actors.

I'll grant that even for these actors, intent can be uncertain (and I'm being generous).

The question is: who gives a fuck? and why?

The man has a knife. You have a gun. He's never liked you. Why would you stop to think that maybe all he wants to do -- this time -- is fashion a wood sculpture or pick his teeth?

Why would you not make it abundantly clear to him, and all others watching, that anyone who has the dual misfortune of being so mismatched AND having harbored evil intentions against you is, therefore consigned to a lifetime without the knife and, at the very least, the hand that held it?

Again, what's the discussion about?

Is it only me or does it strike anyone else as absurd and ahistorical that both the world's most powerful nation (us) and the world's most threatened one (israel) walk around gingerly giving a rat's ass about how lesser nations might feel?

What a bunch of self-victimizing bullshit!

Enough with the talk about what "they" might mean or intend.

Maybe they mean no harm. Maybe the innnumerable embassy hostage and bombing situations have been freak incidents and not declarations of war. Maybe they really do have the noblest intentions about nuclear energy. Maybe holocaust denial is nothing but an expressive art form.


But, why would we take the chance?

He has the knife. You have the gun.
Q. Who wins?
A. The guy not gazing at his own navel.

9/12/2007 06:44:00 PM  
Blogger Jim in Virginia said...

Assad has his gonads in a vise. Syria has admitted the IAF blew up something, and escaped unscathed. If he retaliates, he gives Israel the opportunity to do much more serious damage. If he doesn't, he looks like a wimp to democracy reformers, fundamentalists, his military, anyone anti- Assad. How long can he hang on to power?

Here's the first rational explanation I've seen for why Israel seems so reluctant to act when provoked (like the last Qassam.) The status quo is not good, but it is better than the alternatives if the status quo is disturbed.
Interesting times indeed.

9/12/2007 07:17:00 PM  
Blogger Red River said...

"He has the knife. You have the gun.
Q. Who wins?
A. The guy not gazing at his own navel. "

No. The guy with the knife wins if he is close enough. No doubt about it. He does not even have to have his hand on the knife when it starts. And unless he is shot in the head or the spine, he can still kill.

9/12/2007 07:53:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

The current leader of Israel is Jimmy-Carteresque in his foreign policy ineptitude. Weakness on the part of Israel, or fear of what the leftist media or the anti-semitic UN demagogues would say bears more weight in his calculations then the loss of innocent Israeli lives. Can Israel step back from the brink? Maybe... but not with it's current government.

So what is to be done? John F. Kennedy, faced with a corrupt ally in Vietnam, engineeered an overthrow of the Vietnamese government. That didn't work out so well.

Maybe the Israelis need to conduct an above ground nuclear test just to remind the Syrians how dangerous the game they are playing really is.

9/12/2007 08:06:00 PM  
Blogger Red River said...

"My own view from the beginning has been that Iraq was the key to Iran."

What if Iran was the target all along? And Iraq was a massive strategic deception?

Napoleon did much the same thing at Austerlitz when he abandoned the Pratzen hights. This suckered the Russians in who were so eager to fight. This forced the Russians to face the cream of the French Army which then destroyed them.

In Iraq, Iran is deploying its equivalent of Green Berets including assets from Lebanon. In addition, the IRGC as an organization is becoming decisively engaged.

Its is facing a US military which is reaching the zenith of its capabilities and an Iraqi military that is rebulding from the ground up in a Western mold. In addition, the Iraqi population is becoming increasingly unified and less and less tolerant of murder and which is an Arab population.

What are the results so far?

First, the US and Iraqis are just shooting IRGC assets on sight. No more raids to exploit intel - just kill. This is signigicant.

Second, having your best agents getting whacked faster than they can be replaced is extremely demoralizing and the feedback loop to improve things gets chopped.

Third, Iran seems to be reinforcing its failing hand.

What does the future hold?

Supposing Iran keeps piling on, then they will face a resurgent Iraqi Army which will be manuverist. This means a heavy battalion with proper logistical support could make heavy raids into Iran at will and sow panic in Tehran like the Republican Guard raids in 1988 did.

This would force Iran into a crisis.

Who says Syria or Iran is stable?

The Kurds in N Syria and NW Iran would love to rejoin Kurdistan in Iraq.

Syria could be split into a greater Lebanon and a greater Sunni Iraq with Jordan picking up the pieces.

The King of Jordan does have a legitimate claim to much of Syria as well.

9/12/2007 08:24:00 PM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...

I'm not sure things were thought out so clearly. The Army that went into Iraq in 2003 was doctrinally unsuited to fighting the war it is fighting now. "We don't do cities," was the mantra of the day. There was apprehension that they might have to fight for Baghdad.

If you read Kimberly Kagan's Iraq report, the Iranian agents were already in place waiting for OIF. And their goal was to reprise Lebanon with the US in the role of the Israelis.

But Iran hasn't succeeded yet. One historical analogy from World War 2 is the Banzai counterattack. As you probably know, the Japanese Army was master of the area ambush, with very deep defenses. But ultimately the survival of the Japanese garrison depended on "throwing the Americans back into the sea". Otherwise the beachead would grow like a cancer. If Iraq isn't Hezbolla-ized (Crocker's term, I think) it will sooner or later become an intolerable threat to Iran.

It's a much closer run thing than many people may suspect. Iran is facing internal and economic trouble. They must keep winning or go on the permanent defensive. And I think that's true of al-Qaeda too. The peak of their popularity has passed. They took on America in Anbar province and got their heads handed to them on a platter. That has got to hurt.

But all will be for nought unless America has a clear strategic head, democratically worked out. Democracy is both a bug and a feature.

9/12/2007 08:47:00 PM  
Blogger Fat Man said...

"If both Syria and Iran are bent on hostilities"

If? bent? They have been unfailingly hostile for a generation. They continue to attack and we continue to pretend it isn't happening.

John McCain won't attack the Democrats patriotism, but I can and will. They have none. They would rather see the United States loose than Iran or Syria.

9/12/2007 08:56:00 PM  
Blogger section9 said...

I suspect that people like Zbigniew Brezezinski and other critics of Rice and the Administration still smart over having been taken to the cleaners by a gang of rug merchants.

There is this quaint notion that all we have to do is simply talk to them. As if Middle Eastern politics is some sort of encounter group, like EST or Transactional Analysis.

We have played the diplomatic card out as we intended to. State has had its chance, and the Iranians did what everyone expected them to: spurned the last best hope for a peaceful settlement. They want power more than peace, as is the norm among fascists.

There will be war, of course. What fascinates me is the stupidity of the Boy President in signing on to this escapade. He is exposed, and far away from his main ally.

His father would never have done something so foolish.

9/12/2007 10:08:00 PM  
Blogger Nomenklatura said...

"If both Syria and Iran are bent on hostilities..."

This doesn't seem very plausible - if your country is largely desert then you have no place to hide, and your regime at least will inevitably lose any large-scale confrontation against a determined US.

Far more likely is that what Iran and Syria want is the status that Pakistan has now - untouchable solely because of its possession of nuclear weapons. From the point of view of the Syrians and the Iranians, it would seem to be worth running very large risks to achieve this one advantage.

Unfortunately Pakistan now demonstrates every day that if you have nuclear weapons you can harbor terrorists, even terrorists who have attacked the United States, and you can export nuclear technology directly to America's enemies, and get away with it. The lesson has to be plain to the Syrians and the Iranians.

9/12/2007 10:51:00 PM  
Blogger Kinuachdrach said...

Interesting thread. The clear conclusion is that the future will not be like the present.

The unavoidable evidence is that western countries (i.e., US & Israel) will not do any more pre-emptive attacks. No matter how smart strategically, the political price is too high in an infantilized western world. Iran & Syria have the initiative.

The hinge of history is whether Iran or Syria will misplay its hand and make an aggressive act that even the Guardian & the New York Times will be forced to notice. Do that, and they lose. On the other hand, if Iran & Syria can restrain themselves to keep nibbling at the edges, they will ultimately win.

9/13/2007 08:22:00 AM  
Blogger brough said...

anyone catch Ahmadinejad's confession last night?

dinnerjacket was being interviewed live on Channel 4 News (UK), in the gardens of the presidential palace (bit precarious, what a perfect opportunity for Israel to take out Jon Snow. ;). Quite a scoop, although they forgot to book a translator.

After many adamant denials about Iran's ambitions for a nuclear bomb, either Ahmadinejad or the translator appeared to slip up:

live translation (seemingly by some guy they grabbed off the street):

"There's one question I want to ask you. Why should not the American's programme be stopped? *Our bombs are a danger*, but American bombs are not dangerous? "

C4 'corrected' (??) transcript ("We've dissected the Ahmadinejad interview live on Channel 4 News last night and have produced a comprehensive verbatim translation and the original video in Farsi"):

"But I ask you, why shouldn't the US be stopped if we who are just starting a nuclear programme are being stopped? Is our peaceful approach a danger and the US bombs not a danger? What sort of logic is that? I think one cannot run the world on such a logic. This is a defeated logic."

if someone here speaks Farsi, the original video is on the website.

9/13/2007 03:28:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

Turkish intelligence assisted IDF in attack on Syria – report

Kuwaiti newspaper says Turkish intelligence provided Israel with information on targets Air Force allegedly attacked last week without Turkish government's authorization

9/14/2007 06:39:00 AM  
Blogger Beyond The Rim... said...

>They [al-Qaeda] took on America in Anbar province and got their heads handed to them on a platter.

Osama's mistake was that even after Afghanistan he still believed he was fighting, when final push came to shove, the same U.S. resolve that was overrun in Somalia. That George Bush is not Bill Clinton and even if the Democrats seemed to be taking a position supporting his Somalia mindset, it did not matter seemed lost on him.

However, this last video seems to recast his rhetoric into Western political whining rather than assertive Jihadi posturing. Maybe the reality has gotten through, with George Bush still having 18 months to continue the fight and a general on board who seems to know how best to prosecute it.

>The peak of their popularity has passed.

That could be temporary, since they are in it for the long haul. They could bide their time waiting for regime change in Washington and hope the next president is more Bill Clinton than George Bush.

9/14/2007 01:03:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

Times Online weighs in and expands on the idea that the target was Syrian nuclear materials from North Korea:
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.

“This was supposed to be a devastating Syrian surprise for Israel,” said an Israeli source. “We’ve known for a long time that Syria has deadly chemical warheads on its Scuds, but Israel can’t live with a nuclear warhead.”

An expert on the Middle East, who has spoken to Israeli participants in the raid, told yesterday’s Washington Post that the timing of the raid on September 6 appeared to be linked to the arrival three days earlier of a ship carrying North Korean material labelled as cement but suspected of concealing nuclear equipment.

9/16/2007 05:59:00 PM  

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