The Inside Story of Israel’s Destruction of a Syrian Nuclear Reactor

In 2007, Israeli intelligence determined that Syria had built a clandestine nuclear reactor—clearly intended for developing nuclear weapons—in a remote desert region. As the cabinet and military brass debated what to do, it was becoming increasingly clear that the reactor was set to go “hot” imminently, thus making an attack much more dangerous. By the time then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered an airstrike, he had concluded that it had to take place immediately. Yaakov Katz, in a passage from his recent book on the subject, tells the story:

The night before [the decision was reached], on September 4, the air force had carried out its last training flight, this time dropping live bombs over an imaginary target in the Negev desert. After months of training, [during which they did not know the nature of the mission], the pilots were as ready as they would ever be. The IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and the air-force general Eliezer Shkedi had been there to watch. Shkedi, who had flown with them on one of the earlier training sessions, now gathered the pilots in the squadron’s briefing room. “Your mission is to bomb a nuclear reactor in Syria,” he told the airmen who looked at one another in disbelief. “It is of utmost importance for the safety and security of the Jewish people and the state of Israel.”

Shkedi told the pilots that the operation had three objectives: destroy the reactor, return to Israel without losing any aircraft, and complete the mission as quietly as possible and without detection. The name the air force gave the operation said it all: Soft Melody. . . .

At around 10:30 p.m., four F-15s took off from the Hatzerim base in southern Israel and another four F-16s from the Ramon base in the Negev desert. Altogether, the planes were carrying around twenty tons of bombs, more than enough to destroy a building less than 2,000 meters square. Some of the bombs were equipped with satellite guidance systems. Each had a different level of penetration. This way, if one didn’t work, the others could compensate. . . .

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More about: Ehud Olmert, IDF, Israeli Security, Nuclear proliferation, Syria

What Egypt’s Withdrawal from the “Arab NATO” Signifies for U.S. Strategy

A few weeks ago, Egypt quietly announced its withdrawal from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a coalition—which also includes Jordan, the Gulf states, and the U.S.—founded at President Trump’s urging to serve as an “Arab NATO” that could work to contain Iran. Jonathan Ariel notes three major factors that most likely contributed to Egyptian President Sisi’s abandonment of MESA: his distrust of Donald Trump (and concern that Trump might lose the 2020 election) and of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; Cairo’s perception that Iran does not pose a major threat to its security; and the current situation in Gaza:

Gaza . . . is ruled by Hamas, defined by its covenant as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” Sisi has ruthlessly persecuted the Brotherhood in Egypt. [But] Egypt, despite its dependence on Saudi largesse, has continued to maintain its ties with Qatar, which is under Saudi blockade over its unwillingness to toe the Saudi line regarding Iran. . . . Qatar is also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, . . . and of course Hamas.

[Qatar’s ruler] Sheikh Tamim is one of the key “go-to guys” when the situation in Gaza gets out of hand. Qatar has provided the cash that keeps Hamas solvent, and therefore at least somewhat restrained. . . . In return, Hamas listens to Qatar, which does not want it to help the Islamic State-affiliated factions involved in an armed insurrection against Egyptian forces in northern Sinai. Egypt’s military is having a hard enough time coping with the insurgency as it is. The last thing it needs is for Hamas to be given a green light to cooperate with Islamic State forces in Sinai. . . .

Over the past decade, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, Israel has also been gradually placing more and more chips in its still covert but growing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s decision to pull out of MESA should give it cause to reconsider. Without Egypt, MESA has zero viability unless it is to include either U.S. forces or Israeli ones. [But] one’s chances of winning the lottery seem infinitely higher than those of MESA’s including the IDF. . . . Given that Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest and militarily most powerful state and its traditional leader, has clearly indicated its lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership, Israel should urgently reexamine its strategy in this regard.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy