With contradictory statements coming from unnamed Bush administration officials, there continues to be speculation around the purpose and significance of Israel’s incursion into Syrian airspace last week. The New York Times reports that:
One Bush administration official said Israel had recently carried out reconnaissance flights over Syria, taking pictures of possible nuclear installations that Israeli officials believed might have been supplied with material from North Korea. The administration official said Israeli officials believed that North Korea might be unloading some of its nuclear material on Syria.
While Associated Press says that:
Israeli warplanes targeted weapons destined for Hezbollah in a strike last week in northeastern Syria, a U.S. government official said Wednesday, even as Syria and Israel remained silent on the incident. […] U.S. officials have declined to comment on whether the suspected weapons targeted might have originated in North Korea, whether the aircraft passed over Turkey on their way into or out of Syria or whether Israel had used weapons from the United States in the airstrike.
Given that North Korea has just opened up its nuclear facilities to American inspectors and it recently entered into a bilateral agreement with the U.S. saying it will disable its nuclear facilities by the end of this year, the North Korean angle to the Syrian story looks to me like a smokescreen.
In World Politics Review, Frida Ghitis points out that:
Israel is undoubtedly developing contingency plans in case it decides it must stop Iran’s nuclear program. If it decides to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations, a possible flight route could take it over the Syria-Turkey border, along Northern Iraq’s friendly Kurdish region, and into Iran. Flying safely over Syria would be key to the success of the mission against Iran.
It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that Israel will not need to follow through with such plans. Fox News reports that:
Political and military officers, as well as weapons of mass destruction specialists at the State Department, are now advising Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the diplomatic approach [to Iran] favored by [Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas] Burns has failed and the administration must actively prepare for military intervention of some kind. Among those advising Rice along these lines are John Rood, the assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation; and a number of Mideast experts, including Ambassador James Jeffrey, deputy White House national security adviser under Stephen Hadley and formerly the principal deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs.
Consequently, according to a well-placed Bush administration source, “everyone in town” is now participating in a broad discussion about the costs and benefits of military action against Iran, with the likely timeframe for any such course of action being over the next eight to 10 months, after the presidential primaries have probably been decided, but well before the November 2008 elections.
The discussions are now focused on two basic options: less invasive scenarios under which the U.S. might blockade Iranian imports of gasoline or exports of oil, actions generally thought to exact too high a cost on the Iranian people but not enough on the regime in Tehran; and full-scale aerial bombardment.
On the latter course, active consideration is being given as to how long it would take to degrade Iranian air defenses before American air superiority could be established and U.S. fighter jets could then begin a systematic attack on Iran’s known nuclear targets.
Most relevant parties have concluded such a comprehensive attack plan would require at least a week of sustained bombing runs, and would at best set the Iranian nuclear program back a number of years — but not destroy it forever. Other considerations include the likelihood of Iranian reprisals against Tel Aviv and other Israeli population centers; and the effects on American troops in Iraq. There, officials have concluded that the Iranians are unlikely to do much more damage than they already have been able to inflict through their supply of explosives and training of insurgents in Iraq.
That is a mind-boggling assertion. Do these officials regard IEDs to be as powerful as Iranian missiles or that the latter are no more dangerous than an IED? The Iranians themselves have been quite blunt in their warnings:
[Former head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard,] General Rahim Yahya Safavi, Jaafari’s predecessor and now special military advisor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had warned last week that the United States did not appreciate how at risk its troops were.
“It can not evaluate the vulnerability of its 200,000 troops in the region since we have accurately identified all of their camps,” said Safavi.
It’s hard not to believe that at the beginning of a war with Iran, the United States might lose more troops than it has over the course of four and a half years in Iraq.
But if anyone thinks that General Petraeus seems like far too prudent a commander to allow his forces to become so vulnerable, his comments in an interview given to The Independent on Monday offer no reassurance:
General Petraeus strongly implied that it would soon be necessary to obtain authorisation to take action against Iran within its own borders, rather than just inside Iraq. “There is a pretty hard look ongoing at that particular situation” he said.
See also, N. Korea: Israeli invasion of Syrian airspace ‘dangerous provocation’ (Ynet) and Nuclear? Chemical? Missiles? What was hit? (Joshua Landis).