Shock Waves From Syria

Thursday, September 20, 2007

THERE'S BEEN no official confirmation of the targets or results of an Israeli air raid in northeastern Syria on Sept. 6. Yet, like a subterranean explosion, the event is sending shock waves through the Middle East and beyond. Syria has protested to the United Nations, though it hasn't been very clear about what it's protesting. On Tuesday, a front-page editorial in Damascus's main government-run newspaper criticized the United States for not condemning the attack. An Israeli newspaper, meanwhile, noted triumphantly that no nation other than North Korea had come to Syria's defense, rhetorically or otherwise.

What happened? Media accounts are beginning to converge on a report that Israel bombed a facility where it believed Syria was attempting to hatch its own nuclear weapons program with North Korea's assistance. The Post's Glenn Kessler reported that the strike came three days after a ship carrying material from North Korea docked at a Syrian port and delivered containers that Israel believes held nuclear materials. It's not clear whether U.S. intelligence agencies concur with Israel's conclusion, and independent experts have said that Syria lacks the resources for a credible nuclear weapons program.

It nevertheless is beginning to look as if Israel may have carried out the boldest act of nuclear preemption since its own 1981 raid against Iraq's Osirak nuclear complex. If so, its silence is shrewd. It has allowed Syria to avoid a military response and every other Arab state to pretend that nothing happened. So far, the most serious fallout may be China's abrupt and unexplained postponement of scheduled "six-party" talks on North Korea's nuclear program.

The non-news has boosted the previously rock-bottom poll numbers of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. This week he jauntily announced that he was open to peace talks with Syria. Still, the lasting repercussions of the raid have yet to become clear. One question is how the government of Bashar al-Assad will respond to what may have been a devastating Israeli blow -- coupled with what can only be interpreted as silent approval by Syria's neighbors and most of the rest of the world. Will Mr. Assad be frightened out of the cocky aggressiveness that has caused him to sponsor or facilitate terrorism in Israel, Iraq and Lebanon? Or will he choose to escalate?

Another choice is faced by the Bush administration, which hopes to complete an accord with North Korea by the end of the year under which North Korea will disclose all of its nuclear programs and disable its facilities. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this week that concerns about proliferation only added to the urgency of moving ahead on the deal. That's true -- but it doesn't mean U.S. negotiators can ignore the possibility that North Korea was shipping nuclear equipment to Syria even while promising to dismantle its own program. Pyongyang's dealings with Syria are a legitimate and necessary subject of inquiry when the six-party talks resume -- and they ought to be part of North Korea's promised disclosure.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company