Eastern Alliances

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on October 2, 2007

(by Priya Abraham, WorldMag.com) – Israel is usually no good at keeping secrets. Whatever clandestine mission it tries to hide, military or political, someone usually leaks the details. Not with one air raid carried out on Syria Sept. 6, however: Even a month later, why and how it happened remain surprisingly mysterious.

Map of Syria

Here is what is known after the Syrians complained: The Israeli Air Force raided a site in northeastern Syria near a town called Dayr az-Zawr. The aircraft dumped refueling tanks on the Turkish side of the border before fleeing to the Mediterranean.

What is under speculation is why Israel was in Syria at all. According to some anonymous leaks to media—apparently from U.S., not Israeli, sources—Israel has been watching the site for months. Israeli commandos swooped in and collected material right before the air raid, and found it was of North Korean origin.

Of all the possible explanations, that Israel was proving to Syria it still has the upper hand, or that the raid was a dry run to attack Iran, the North Korean connection may be the most plausible–and the most frightening. For years Pyongyang has shared its missile technology with Syria and another terror-sponsoring state–Iran.

The North is the largest spreader of ballistic missile technology. If it is now sharing nuclear material with Syria, it means that Syria is pushing to expand its weapons program, and that Pyongyang is already reneging on its promises this year to disarm. More chillingly, it means the United States may have deeper worries about weapons and terrorism cooperation among the three states.

After its initial complaint, Syrian officials threatened to take the matter to the UN Security Council as the world body’s annual session began last week. Then they quietly dropped the matter, while Syria’s Arab neighbors also declined to defend Damascus. Such an Israeli intrusion would usually spark outrage.

The North Koreans oddly did the opposite. Within days, they condemned the raid, raising the question: Why would Pyongyang care about the raid? Then, with little explanation, North Korean delegates delayed a new round of nuclear disarmament talks due to start Sept. 19 for a week. Their reaction is telling, says John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN, now an analyst at Washington’s American Enterprise Institute. Speaking up was a blunder, but it may give “some indication there had been North Korean casualties,” Bolton told WORLD. “They’ve been very careful not to say anything since.”

All this is bad timing for the Bush administration’s top North Korea negotiator, Christopher Hill. Stagnant negotiations with Pyongyang to remove its nuclear weapons program have just revived. A Feb. 13 breakthrough, when the North agreed to shut down its main nuclear reactor within 60 days and then dismantle its atomic program, was extended as the North delayed closing Yongbyon until July, with international inspectors now on site.

Hill is a charming, witty diplomat who has gone out of his way to keep Pyongyang at the table. But the days after Israel struck Syria quickly revealed some long-standing rifts within the State Department, between Hill’s bureau, eager for a deal whatever the cost, and the nonproliferation office, which trends more hawkish.

Hours before Hill was due to discuss the sixth round of six-party talks, nuclear nonproliferation official Andrew Semmel, traveling in Italy, dropped a bombshell. Answering a reporter’s question about Israel’s strike on Syria, he said he suspected the Syrians of having a covert nuclear program—and that North Korean technicians were inside the country. Though Hill later stressed the need to push even harder at negotiations, it is clear the revelation threatens the six-party talks. Pyongyang threatened to walk out if it became a sticking point.

That may not be such a bad idea. Historically in negotiations, North Korea has promised to disarm then privately shored up its plutonium and uranium stores while publicly testing ballistic missiles. The trick is to verify—and that has so far been a “non-starter” at six-party talks, Bolton said. Before his UN ambassadorship, Bolton served as State Department Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security, combating the spread of weapons of mass destruction—where he learned to distrust North Korea’s gestures toward disarmament.

Meanwhile, the much-vaunted shutdown of the Yongbyon reactor may not have been much of a concession after all. Nuclear inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have said the facility is decrepit and contaminated with nuclear radiation, likely at the end of its days. “It’s quite possible North Korea has already extracted all the available plutonium and moved it away,” Bolton said.

IAEA inspectors make sure nuclear material does not go from peaceful to non-peaceful uses, Bolton said, but they lack the expertise to assess the full scale of a weapons program. A better idea, he says, is to have the UN’s nuclear powers verify that instead.

Given that North Korea has shared missile technology with Syria and Iran, it’s no leap to see the sides cooperating on nuclear weapons, Bolton said. But if North Korea and Iran have cooperated on the nuclear front, “it’s quite likely you can’t solve either or both problems separately from each other,” Bolton said.

“From my own experience in the government, we didn’t look at the two as interconnected. I could go from meetings on North Korea in the morning to meetings on Iran later in the afternoon within the U.S. government and the issues would never be connected. So they proceeded on completely separate tracks . . . really solving both of them becomes much more complicated, and I think it’s something we need to consider before we rush to make further concessions to the North Koreans.”

Bolton, who is controversial in Washington for his tough, direct style, never got a chance to negotiate with Pyongyang directly. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wanted him to, but Secretary of State Colin Powell opposed the idea. But with the latest worries of the North’s dabbling in the Middle East, it’s no time to go soft on Pyongyang.

Copyright ©2007 WORLD Magazine, 10/6/07 issue.  Reprinted here October 2nd with permission from World Magazine.  Visit the website at www.WorldMag.com.