Operation Orchard 10 Years On: How a Potential Catastrophe Was Averted
The Assad regime in Syria is notorious for its use of deadly chemical weapons such as sarin and chlorine gas in the ongoing civil war. These weapons have been used repeatedly in violation of international law and have reportedly killed and injured thousands. Despite the deal struck with the Obama administration and brokered by Russia in 2013 to destroy the weapons, the Assad regime has gamed the system and continues to possess and develop them, causing massive destruction to its enemies and even its own citizens. However, what’s often forgotten is that the situation could have been infinitely worse were it not for the wise actions taken by Israel ten years ago to prevent Syria from becoming a nuclear power.
The story of Operation Orchard starts in 2004, when Israeli and American intelligence agencies obtained evidence that Assad regime was beginning to develop nuclear capabilities. For several years prior, the two countries had suspected that Syria was developing a secret nuclear program, but it wasn’t until the explosion of a train carrying Syrian nuclear engineers in North Korea that those fears were confirmed. According to the Mossad, the engineers were there to recover weapons-grade plutonium to be used in nuclear bombs.
More evidence surfaced two years later when the Mossad hacked the computer of a senior Syrian official visiting London. Essentially, they found a smoking gun: hundreds of blueprints and pictures showing significant activity at al-Kibar, a remote desert location in Syria that had been monitored by the Israelis for several years prior as a possible nuclear research center. The documents also revealed secret nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Syria at high levels of government. It was later reported that Iran, too, was heavily involved in the project, donating $1 billion to it with plans of using al-Kibar as a backup in case they were unable to complete uranium enrichment in their own facilities.
A March 2007 raid on the home of Ibrahim Othman, the head of Syria’s nuclear program, revealed detailed plans of the facility and confirmed that it was a plutonium reactor as well as the presence of North Korean nuclear experts. The Ofek-7 spy satellite, launched in June 2007 just two months before Operation Orchard, helped provide further coverage of al-Kibar.
In August 2007, a team of elite Sayeret Matkal recon unit infiltrated al-Kibar and recovered photos and soil samples, which later tested positive for nuclear material. This evidence prompted Olmert to ask U.S. President George Bush to bomb the site, but Bush refused saying that the evidence was not definitive. Olmert thus decided unilaterally to conduct a raid on the facility in the interests of Israel’s national security.
On September 5, 2007, the Israeli Cabinet approved the bombing raid. After having trained in the Negev Desert for several weeks, a group of 10 F-15 fighter jets, several F-16I escorts and a signal jamming plane took off from Ramat David Airbase that same night to carry out the raid. The first target of the raid was a Syrian radar station in Tall al-Abuad. With the Syrian defense system completely disabled, the jets made their way to al-Kibar and successfully destroyed the facility using 17 tons of explosives and with the help of laser targeting from commandos on the ground. Ten North Korean workers were reportedly killed. The Israeli commandos were extracted and the planes returned to base, flying over Turkish airspace.
The first reports about the raid came via CNN but no official word came from the Israeli government or Israeli media outlets until September 19th when Benjamin Netanyahu, then-leader of the opposition, announced his support of it.
The Syrian government denied reports that it was building a nuclear weapons facility and lodged a complaint with the U.N. saying the raid was “a breach of airspace of the Syrian Arab Republic.” In an interview shortly after the raid, Assad claimed the raid destroyed an unused military building and that if it actually was a nuclear facility it would have had surface-to-air defenses. However, many experts believe that the lack of defenses was an intentional move made to disguise the building during its early development phase. Curiously, no Arab government besides Syria has commented on the raid, which to some signals tacit support of Israel’s actions.
In an interview the following year, then-director of the CIA Michael Hayden noted that the nuclear reactor destroyed at al-Kibar could have produced enough nuclear material for one or two weapons per year, which is on par with North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility. In April 2010, the International Atomic Energy Agency, despite its initial skepticism, confirmed that al-Kibar did in fact house a secret nuclear reactor.
Reports indicate that Assad’s desire to obtain nuclear weapons has not been dampened. It is believed that Syria still possesses up to 50 tons of uranium, which is enough to produce two or three bombs once enriched. The location of the uranium is unknown, although reports by the German newspaper Der Spiegel indicate it might be hidden in an underground facility close to the Lebanese border. There are also reports that at least some of the uranium may have fallen out of the hands of the Syrian government and come into possession by ISIS and the Free Syrian Army opposition group.
At the moment, thanks to Operation Orchard, Syria’s nuclear capabilities are believed to be extremely limited. It lacks the resources, personnel, and international support necessary to sustain a serious weapons program. In fact, Syria only has one working nuclear reactor – a Chinese-built research reactor that’s under IAEA safeguards and which cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium or uranium.