Monday, September 17, 2007

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.


Blogger hdgreene said...

This is all George Bush's fault. He got the North Koreans to pretend to cheat on that iron clad nuclear agreement that Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton came up with. Then their "technicians" penetrated the Syrian and Iranian programs by saying they were going to help their American hating buddies. But instead they told George Bush all the Iranian and Syrian secrets. Plus the North Koreans sold them a bunch of useless junk for a gazillion dollars and got us to bomb it into--well, into even more useless junk--before the Syrians could catch on. Now they can sell them replacement equipment (no warranty for bomb damage) for an additional gazillion.

In two years we will be getting our toys from North Korea. How can Iran compete with Walmart?

9/17/2007 12:41:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

My friends don't plot to do me harm, that's the realm of my enemies. Syria and Iran are not my friends, nor are they the friends of any Jews.

Israel doesn't fly around just for chuckles dropping bombs anywhere they choose.

War is coming on a larger scale than most Americans seem to fathom.

9/17/2007 01:08:00 PM  
Blogger Utopia Parkway said...

Random thoughts:

Why not intercept the ship at sea and confiscate its cargo? The overflight and bombing raid were much more risky. Of course much more in your face.

If the site destroyed contained radioactive materials they would be detectible in the atmosphere in nearby Iraq (although I don't suppose the US military will be broadcasting this info).

It's unlikely that the Norks would have already developed a nuclear warhead that would fit on a missile, although they were undoubtedly working on it.

Was this the first transfer of nuke technology or only one of many?

9/17/2007 01:52:00 PM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...

Some analysts, STRATFOR, for example, think a Syrian nuclear program to be unlikely. Others may fear a "rush to war" with Iran. But it's hard to judge because there are too many angles that are unspecified.

I'd agree that the North Koreans don't have the technology to build a fission bomb. But can they provide a radiological (dirty bomb) warhead? Has some remnant of Iraq's WMD program survived just fifty miles across the border? Did they buy a design and simply need enough nuclear material to make it work? Too many unanswered questions yet.

9/17/2007 02:11:00 PM  
Blogger Teresita said...

R: War is coming on a larger scale than most Americans seem to fathom.

That's because Americans have been trained by the Bush Repukes to think that wars don't involve raising taxes or armies. If we get tangled in Iran it will mean the draft, draconian taxes, and sundry other sacrifices, and that will boggle the American mind.

9/17/2007 02:28:00 PM  
Blogger PeterBoston said...

What's the problem? According to T. Barnett once Iran is nuclear armed they will restructure to accommodate foreign investment, apply to the WTO, and become the world's leading producer of plastic Jesus statues.

9/17/2007 02:28:00 PM  
Blogger LarryD said...

Why not intercept the ship at sea and confiscate its cargo? The overflight and bombing raid were much more risky. Of course much more in your face.

How big a navy do you think Israel has?

The US (in collaboration with other countries) has been trying to prevent NK from proliferating via naval shipping as you suggest, but that doesn't seal NK up completely, there is always the land route out through China.

9/17/2007 02:43:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...


Does anyone ship cement from one side of the world to the other?

9/17/2007 02:54:00 PM  
Blogger 3Case said...

AQ Khan...still no bullet in his feckless our CIA...too busy booking Vanity Fair pieces or the next NYT disclosures....

9/17/2007 03:43:00 PM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

China doesn't care if North Korea ships nukes through their country? Given the huge explosions and other "accidents" North Korea is heir too, I sure as hell wouldn't want anything of theirs that is touchy going through MY property.

9/17/2007 03:48:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

That's good to hear Boston!
Good news is hard to find these days.
Here's some:
It was the home video that nobody wanted to watch:

Meiwes, 45, was jailed for life last year for killing Bernd Jürgen Brandes, 43, in 2001 after Brandes agreed in an internet chatroom to be eaten by him.
Why Not?

One of Professor Risse’s first tasks was to confirm that the body parts found in Meiwes’s freezer belonged to the same victim. “There was the foot, for example,” he said in an interview with Focus magazine. “Meiwes had placed it on a plate, stuck it with a knife and a fork, poured sauce over it and photographed it with the intention of putting the picture on the internet. Then there was the skull, bones, chunks of skeleton and soft organs as well as about 30 sealed packets of meat waiting to be eaten. Written on one was Cator Fillet of Neck 10/03/01.” Cator was Brandes’s chatroom name. “Other inscriptions were like those you find in a supermarket, you know – mincemeat with sauce.”

It was the home movie that disturbed Professor Risse the most. “A shiver went down my spine, my palms were moist,” he said. “I have been doing this job 20 years, have carried out 5,000 autopsies, seen maybe 30,000 corpses but the cannibal’s film was the most repulsive experience.”

Related Links
Cannibal goes on charm offensive

9/17/2007 03:58:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Not if they have to return with an empty ship.
To avoid this, they make a side trip on the way back, delivering Coal to Newcastle.

9/17/2007 04:01:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

I thought at one time there was some collaboration between the NORKORS and the Mad Pakistani Scientist?

9/17/2007 04:04:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

The World Tribune weighs in with more details...
The United States has determined that Syria has been seeking nuclear weapons from North Korea.

Officials said North Korea has provided nuclear material and guidance to Syria. They said Pyongyang has helped establish underground facilities that could be used to produce weapons-grade uranium for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"There are indicators that they do have something going on there," Semmel, who did not rule out the involvement of the so-called nuclear smuggling network once led by Abdul Qadeer Khan, said on Sept. 13.

Officials said North Korean ships arrived in Syria in mid-2007 with cargo suspected to have included weapons of mass destruction components. They said both Israel and the United States have been tracking these shipments, which in some cases were registered as cement.

[On Sunday, Iran said Russia was ready to ship enriched uranium fuel for the Bushehr nuclear energy reactor. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the nuclear fuel for Bushehr was inspected and sealed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.]

"There are North Korean people there," Semmel said. "There's no question about that. Just as there are a lot of North Koreans in Iraq and Iran."

9/17/2007 04:40:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

Correct link to World Tribune story...

9/17/2007 04:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Yes, they do. And you can buy a book all about it.

9/17/2007 04:55:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

Artist's depictuion of bomb site can be viewed here...

9/17/2007 05:01:00 PM  
Blogger Andrewdb said...

So just how does the air defense system go dead?

9/17/2007 06:00:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Tripped Breaker?

9/17/2007 06:07:00 PM  
Blogger Utopia Parkway said...

How big a navy do you think Israel has?

How big a navy do they need to stop one cargo ship in the med? Also the US navy could have stopped the ship as well.

I ask the question because it seems that if the ship was carrying some kind of nuclear materials from NK to Syria then it would have been much more revelatory to capture the materials and show them on CNN than to blow them up in the desert. Also more safe. But for some reason they chose to do things this way and not stop the shipment at sea.

Perhaps the US didn't want to confront NK on this issue. Perhaps they weren't really sure what was in the package. Perhaps they didn't want to take a chance of the UN intervening in an inconvenient manner. Maybe there were other things at the site in the desert that needed to be blown up anyway. Perhaps the bombing deep inside Syria was an end in itself more important than the danger of overflying Syria and the danger of starting a shooting war with Syria. Some Israelis are already saying that their deterrence is now restored.

9/17/2007 06:08:00 PM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...

If the package of interest was truckable any seaborne interception might be foiled by dumping it over the side by crane. It might have been positioned for a quick jettison. Of course this can't be done if the ship is seized in port, but the port being Tartus, there could have been problems. Maybe the ship could have been boarded underway by SEALs or such at night but the jettisoning problem may be one reason why a seaborne interception was ruled out.

9/17/2007 06:25:00 PM  
Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...

What is that orange? I see gray trailing to the southeast too.

9/17/2007 06:59:00 PM  
Blogger Utopia Parkway said...

Know thine enemy.

9/17/2007 08:23:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

Now an announcement that the six party talkswith N Korea have been delayed. Could this be related to events in Syria?

Foreign Policy Magazine speculates...
News of the delay was unexpected, given Kim Jong Il's recent cooperative moves. It's also suspicious, as the most likely reasons for a delay would seem to be related to the charge North Korea was providing nuclear assistance to Syria. That connection was disputed by Joseph Cirincione here, but the story continues to gain traction in the British press, with detailed new reports over the weekend alleging the North Korea-Syria axis. On Saturday, U.S. nuclear negotiator Chris Hill didn't directly address the allegations, but told reporters the plan in any case was to press ahead with the six-party talks. On Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Gates neither denied nor confirmed the allegations, but said that the U.S. was watching both North Korea and Syria closely.

Then on Monday morning, Seoul's foreign minister dismissed any nuclear connection between North Korea and Syria. Granted, this could be an effort by the South Koreans to salvage the talks the progress made in the last year, and the upcoming summit between the two Koreas. But given the sensational quality of the reports—clandestine air strikes, dumped fuel tanks on the Turkish border, secret nuclear caches and such—this story is not likely to disappear.

The amazing thing to me is the dearth of reporting in the US liberal media. Are they afraid increased fears of nuclear terrorism would boost Bush's approval rating? They'd rather concentrate on the bread-and-circuses of the latest foibles of OJ and Britney.

9/18/2007 04:02:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

Opinionjournal has an interesting article this morning, mainly consisting of speculation, but which points out that Syria has long been separating Uranium from Phosphates, a necessary process if the Phosphates are to be used as fertilizer. So there really is "radiological agriculture" work going on there.

Of course, there is the possibility that the site was where the extracted Uranium was being stored for shipment to Iran or even some kind of enrichment facility.

As for what facility was struck, it probably was not a hardend Scud launch complex. Scuds are not capable of being launched from underground silos, and the fact that they are liquid vehicles makes that a design challenge for both the missile and the silo.

Of course, Syria is a known producer of the type of resin fuel used in solid propellant rockets - a N. Korean ship was reported to have picked up a load of that chemical a while back. So it is possible that they were developing a long range solid missile, although not likely.

In any case, I wil have to see if I can take a look at those sites Wretchard references. I used to teach a course for the CIA on chracteristics of rocket launch complexes, and it would be interesting to see how the overhead views of those places matches up with my experience.

What is most interesting about this case is the silence that has accompanied it. Not a peep from anyone, not even the usual suspects, no leaks from Israel itself, no protests from Turkey on the apparent use of its airspace, only the North Koreans have issued a condemming satement. Very unusual. Either most governments in the Middle East are breathing a sigh of relief and muttering "The damned Jews saved our ass, again." Or else everyone would just prefer to pretend that there was no target, no strike, nothing to see here folks, move along - but why?

9/18/2007 06:02:00 AM  
Blogger section9 said...

Please. No one appears to have the slightest idea what is going on.

Kim Jong Il needs to unload nuclear materials that he has no use for anymore. He can't just give it to the damn Chinese. However, the IRGC will pay top dollar.

But they need a cutout-and they find one in the Boy President, who is willing to pay middleman/technician for a price.

Everyone wins: the Iranians get a Bomb Assembly Building and nuclear weapons, the Syrians get a finders fee and better rocket technology, and Kim gets paid.

Unfortunately, the U.S. and the Israelis were on to this. So we had to go in with air strikes. Trust me, this was a joint operation.

I would not be surprised if we learned downline if units of the Sayeret Metkal went in from Turkey or Nineveh province to secure the nuclear materials.

You don't just bomb the stuff and then leave enriched uranium lying around for some shepherd to come along and pick up, now do you?

9/18/2007 12:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Why not intercept the ship at sea and confiscate its cargo? The overflight and bombing raid were much more risky. Of course much more in your face."

Somewhat wild speculation: North Korea, or better stated certain parts of the regime--as the recent agreements with Washington have opened up significant cleavages--have flipped. Completely. A few rumours that Kim and his cadre were talking about wanting to be "a better ally than Japan" have been circulating. Given the historic situation of Korea/Manchuria vis-a-vis "China", it is not hard to fathom a sudden shift by certain parts of the regime, and because of the nature of the beast, it would have to be full and complete. Libya didn't have China on its border. N.K. does. This might be a significant signal by those elements in the regime, giving up Syria and Iran. The ship wasn't boarded because the delivery, all its details, were known. Might not even have been the real goods. In any case, better to let all the other parts gather in one spot, and blow it up, than get rid of one part and leave the other nine parts untouched.

If something like this is the case, the six party talks are not useful anymore. China and Russia no longer being useful. If N.K., or certain elements therein, have flipped. Wonder how the talks between N.K. and Japan, in Mongolia (interesting choice of venue, no?) went. Haven't heard much, but Abe resigning ain't a good sign. Anyway, wild speculation yes, but N.K. doing a Libya is well within the realm of the possible, but unlike Libya, N.K. would have to assure its survival in the face of China, by, paradoxically or interestingly, cozying up to the right wing in South Korea and Japan. And of course the U.S.. No better way of being sincere than giving up Syria and Iran.

9/18/2007 03:50:00 PM  
Blogger CDR Salamander said...

Glad to see I'm not the only one looking.

9/25/2007 12:02:00 PM  

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