"We came so close to World War Three"

This article about Israel’s Sept 6 raid on Syria actually precedes the scoops that Allah posted about yesterday, by three days. But there’s been very little interest in it so far, maybe because it doesn’t offer much more in the way of specifics about the raid. What it does offer is a look at the British perspective. London was evidently quite alarmed.

One month after the event, the absence of hard information leads inexorably to the conclusion that the implications must have been enormous.

That was confirmed to The Spectator by a very senior British ministerial source: ‘If people had known how close we came to world war three that day there’d have been mass panic. Never mind the floods or foot-and-mouth — Gordon really would have been dealing with the bloody Book of Revelation and Armageddon.’

A few paragraphs later, it lays out the logical reasons for thinking that whatever Israel destroyed, it was mighty important and incredibly dangerous.

What was in the consignment that led the Israelis to mount an attack which could easily have spiralled into an all-out regional war? It could not have been a transfer of chemical or biological weapons; Syria is already known to possess the most abundant stockpiles in the region. Nor could it have been missile delivery systems; Syria had previously acquired substantial quantities from North Korea. The only possible explanation is that the consignment was nuclear.

The scale of the potential threat — and the intelligence methods that were used to follow the transfer — explain the dense mist of official secrecy that shrouds the event. There have been no official briefings, no winks or nudges, from any of the scores of people who must have been involved in the preparation, analysis, decision-making and execution of the operation. Even when Israelis now offer a firm ‘no comment’, it is strictly off the record. The secrecy is itself significant.

Both the secrecy and the lack of any response from the Syrians or anyone else make the strike significant. When the Israelis destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, it most of the world was quick to denounce it. The UN Security Council passed a condemnatory resolution (what else does the UN do?). Even President Reagan publicly condemned it and the US temporarily withheld shipping some aircraft that the Israelis had bought. The Iraqis themselves howled and Saddam promised to rebuild the destroyed reactor.

But after the Syria raid? Crickets. Even the UN hasn’t said boo about it. Why? And why does an unnamed highly placed British official think that we came so close to world war that day?

Some of the reasons aren’t difficult to game out. Syria is allied to Iran, both are allied at least tacitly to Russia and both are militarily supplied by both Russia and China. It was an advanced Russian air defense system that the Israelis penetrated without any trouble. China in turn is one of Iran’s largest energy customers. Given these entanglements and the US-Israeli alliance, it’s not too hard to see how a strong Syrian reaction to the raid could have triggered an actual world war, even if the Israelis had shown in the raid itself that any direct Syrian military response was hopelessly doomed.

The question is, then, why didn’t the Syrians respond at all? I’m not necessarily talking about a military response; Israel’s raid had proven beyond doubt that whatever weapons Syria has, they’re inferior to those that Israel has. Syria could have responded with increased Hezbollah attacks, or it could have protested as Iraq did after Osirak, with noisy condemnations and fist-pounding at the UN. But it’s been quiet about the September raid so far. Why?

You could answer that Syria is quiet about the raid because it’s guilty of whatever the Israelis suspected, but an Arab state’s guilt has not often slowed it down from accusing a non-Arab state and particularly Israel of crimes. Saddam was guilty in 1981, but he protested as loud as possible anyway and most of the world took his side. Are the soil samples that the Israeli commandos picked up damning enough to keep Assad from protesting, fearing that the Israelis will release their findings? That doesn’t seem likely to me. He could call it “Zionist lies” and have half the world on his side. US liberals would compare the Israeli report to the Powell testimony prior to the 2003 Iraq war and that would be that.

The best explanation for Assad’s lack of protest is that the Israelis have threatened Assad himself. After last summer’s flyby and the September raid itself, Assad has to know that he’s never been more vulnerable to an Israeli airstrike or commando raid. His government has been killing Lebanese officials with relative impunity, so he of all people is aware that what he has been doing to others can be done unto him.

So his lack of response probably comes down to his awareness that Israel possesses a credible threat of force against him. The September raid presented him with a moment of total clarity, so he stays mum. And if he’s not protesting an attack on his own soil, then who else is there to raise a peep in protest for him?