Operation Orchard - IAF Bombing of the Syrian nuclear reactor
Operation Orchard was an Israeli airstrike on a target in the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria carried out just after midnight (local time) on September 6, 2007. The White House and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) later declared that American intelligence indicated the site was a nuclear facility with a military purpose, though Syria denies this. An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation reported evidence of uranium and graphite and concluded that the site bore features resembling an undeclared nuclear reactor. IAEA was unable to confirm or deny the nature of the site because, according to IAEA, Syria failed to provide necessary cooperation with the IAEA investigation Syria has disputed these claims.
According to news reports, the raid was carried out by the Israeli Air Force's (IAF) 69th Squadron of F-15Is, F-16Is, and an ELINT aircraft; as many as eight aircraft participated and at least four of those aircraft crossed into Syrian airspace. The fighters were equipped with AGM-65 Maverick missiles, 500 lb bombs, and external fuel tanks. One report stated that a team of elite Israeli Shaldag special-forces commandos arrived at the site the day before so that they could highlight the target with laser beams, while a later report had (IDF) Sayeret Matkal special-forces commandos involved.
During the night, an Israeli transport helicopter entered Syrian airspace and dropped a team of Shaldag commandos into the area. F-15I Ra'am and F-16I Sufa jets then took off from an airbase in Israel, armed with heavy laser-guided bombs, and were accompanied by an ELINT aircraft. The Israeli commandos then directed their targeting lasers at the facility, which guided the bombs onto the target after they were dropped. The facility was completely destroyed.
According to Aviation Week and Space Technology, U.S. industry and military sources speculated that the Israelis may have used technology similar to America's Suter airborne network attack system to allow their planes to pass undetected by radar into Syria. This would make it possible to feed enemy radar emitters with false targets, and even directly manipulate enemy sensors. Syria is reported to have the new state-of-the art Pantsir-S1E Russian SAM systems. However, the system had not been functional at that time. The Syrian air defense that was operational at that time was suspected to be the Tor-M1 (SA-15) and outdated Pechora-2A (S-125/SA-3) surface-to-air missiles. On their way back to Israel, the aircraft flew over Turkey and jettisoned fuel tanks over the Hatay and Gaziantep provinces. Aviation Week and Space Technology later reported that Israeli aircraft actually engaged a Syrian radar site in Tall al-Abuad, both with conventional precision bombs, electronic attack, and brute force jamming. They added that prior to the raid, the U.S. gave Israel information on Syrian air defenses. In May 2008, a report in IEEE Spectrum cited European sources claiming that the Syrian air defense network had been deactivated by a secret built-in kill switch activated by the Israelis.
F15I Ra'am used by the IAF
CNN first reported that the airstrike targeted weapons "destined for Hezbollah militants" and that the strike "left a big hole in the desert". One week later, The Washington Post reported that U.S. and Israeli intelligence gathered information on a nuclear facility constructed in Syria with North Korean aid, and that the target was a "facility capable of making unconventional weapons". According to The Sunday Times, there were claims of a cache of nuclear materials from North Korea.
Syrian Vice-President Faruq Al Shara announced on September 30 that the Israeli target was The Arab Center for the Studies of Arid Zones and Dry Lands, but the center itself immediately denied this. The following day Syrian President Bashar al-Assad described the bombing target as an "incomplete and empty military complex that was still under construction". He did not provide any further details about the nature of the structure or its purpose.
On 14 October The New York Times cited U.S. and Israeli military intelligence sources saying that the target had been a nuclear reactor under construction by North Korean technicians, with a number of the technicians having been killed in the strike. On December 2 The Sunday Times quoted Uzi Even, a professor at Tel Aviv University and a founder of the Negev Nuclear Research Center, saying that he believes that the Syrian site was built to process plutonium and assemble a nuclear bomb, using weapons-grade plutonium originally from North Korea. He also said that Syria's quick burial of the target site with tons of soil was a reaction to fears of radiation.
On March 19, 2009, Hans Rühle, former chief of the planning staff of the German Defense Ministry, wrote in the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung that Iran was financing a Syrian nuclear reactor. Rühle did not identify the sources of his information. He wrote that U.S. intelligence had detected North Korean ship deliveries of construction supplies to Syria that started in 2002, and that the construction was spotted by American satellites in 2003, who detected nothing unusual, partly because the Syrians had banned radio and telephones from the site and handled communications solely by messengers. He said that "The analysis was conclusive that it was a North Korean-type reactor, a gas graphite model" and that "Israel estimates that Iran had paid North Korea between $1 billion and $2 billion for the project". He also wrote that just before the Israeli operation, a North Korean ship was intercepted en route to Syria with nuclear fuel rods.
The Complex before and after the bombing in 2007
Release of intelligence
On October 10, 2007 The New York Times reported that the Israelis had shared the Syrian strike dossier with Turkey. In turn the Turks traveled to Damascus and confronted the Syrians with the dossier alleging a nuclear program. Syria denied this with vigor saying that the target was a storage depot for strategic missiles. On October 25, 2007 The New York Times reported that two commercial satellite photos taken before and after the raid showed that a square building no longer exists at the suspected site. On October 27, 2007 The New York Times reported that the imaging company Geoeye released an image of the building from September 16, 2003, and from this security analyst John Pike estimated that construction began in 2001. "A senior intelligence official" also told The New York Times that the U.S. has observed the site for years by spy satellite. Subsequent searches of satellite imagery discovered that an astronaut aboard the International Space Station had taken a picture of the area on September 5, 2002. The image, though of low resolution, is good enough to show that the building existed as of that date.
On January 11, 2008, DigitalGlobe released a satellite photo showing that a building similar to the suspected target of the attack had been rebuilt in the same location. However, an outside expert said that it was unlikely to be a reactor and could be cover for excavation of the old site. On April 1, 2008 Asahi Shimbun reported that Ehud Olmert told Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda during a meeting on February 27 that the target of the strike was "nuclear-related facility that was under construction with know-how and assistance from North Korean technicians dispatched by Pyongyang." On April 24, 2008, the CIA released a video and background briefing, which it claims shows similarities between the North Korean nuclear reactor in Yongbyon and the one in Syria which was bombed by Israel. According to a U.S. official, there did not appear to be any uranium at the reactor, and although it was almost completed, it could not have been declared operational without significant testing.
A statement from the White House Press Secretary on April 24, 2008 followed the briefing given to some Congressional committees that week. According to the statement, the administration believed that Syria had been building a covert reactor with North Korean assistance that was capable of producing plutonium, and that the purpose was non-peaceful. It was also stated that the IAEA was being briefed with the intelligence. The IAEA confirmed receipt of the information, and planned to investigate. It was critical of not being informed earlier, and described the unilateral use of force as "undermining the due process of verification". Syrian officials, however, denied any North Korean involvement in their country. According to the BBC, Syria's ambassador to the UK, Sami Khiyami, dismissed the allegations as ridiculous. "We are used to such allegations now, since the day the United States has invaded Iraq - you remember all the theatrical presentations concerning the WMDs weapons of mass destruction in Iraq." Mr Khiyami said the facility was a deserted military building that had "nothing to do with a reactor".