The Israeli army confirmed Wednesday it had conducted a 2007 military strike on what was believed to be Syrian nuclear reactor, lifting the veil of secrecy after more than a decade over one of its boldest and most mysterious operations in recent memory as well as saying the strike should be a warning to Iran that it would not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons.
The Israeli military released previously classified cockpit footage, photographs and intelligence documents about its Sept. 6, 2007, air strike on the Al-Kubar facility near Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria.
It said the reactor was being built with help from North Korea and the facility had been months away from activation. Pakistan and possibly a third country were among the countries suspected of assisting to build the reactor.
Under cover of night, the jets took off at 10:30 p.m., flying low to avoid detection and returning at 2:30 a.m.
The attack, dubbed "Out of the Box" by military command, was long believed to have occurred, but was never officially confirmed by Israel.
The Israeli military described in detail events leading up to the night of Sept 5-6, 2007, in which, it said, eight warplanes, F-16s and F-15s, carried out the mission after taking off from the Ramon and Hatzerim air bases and flying to Deir el-Zour region, 450 kilometers northwest of Damascus. Eighteen tons of munitions were dropped on the site, it said.
"The message from the attack on the nuclear reactor in 2007 is that the state of Israel will not allow the establishment of capabilities that threaten Israel's existence – Syria then, and Iran today," Israeli army chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot said on Twitter.
"This was our message in 2007, this remains our message today and will continue to be our message in the near and distant future," he added.
Israel's decision to go public comes after repeated calls in recent months by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the United States and international community to take tougher action on Iran, Syria's ally.
Israel's intelligence minister, Israel Katz, said on Twitter: "The (2007) operation and its success made clear that Israel will never allow nuclear weaponry to be in the hands of those who threaten its existence - Syria then, and Iran today."
Amos Yadlin, who served as Israel's chief of military intelligence during the strike, said Israel maintained a veil of secrecy around the strike to prevent an escalation with Syria.
"The most interesting concept was pushing [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad to the deniability space," Yadlin told reporters, "If Israel will not take responsibility, there is a chance that Assad will deny that Israel even attacked."
Syria confirmed that Israeli jets entered Syrian airspace during the time of the attack, but did not offer any details on the Israeli targets.
In his 2010 memoir "Decision Points," former U.S. President George W. Bush disclosed that he discussed intelligence about the Syrian facility with then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert before it was destroyed but did not give him the green light for the raid.
James Jeffrey, Bush's deputy national security adviser, said on Wednesday the former U.S. president had been "absolutely supportive" of Israel.
"(He) made it clear that we were very happy that events had eliminated this threat and that if there were any threats to Israel that would emerge from this situation, the United States would stand with Israel, period," Jeffrey told Israel's Army Radio.
In 2008 the United States presented what it described as intelligence showing that North Korea had helped Syria with "covert nuclear activities." At the time Syria dismissed the accusations as part of a campaign to discredit the Damascus government.
"The Syrian government regrets the campaign of lies and falsification by the U.S. administration against Syria, including allegations of nuclear activity," said a government statement issued on the Syrian state news agency.
Iran, which says its nuclear program has only peaceful aims, signed a 2015 deal under which it accepted curbs on its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. U.S. President Donald Trump and Netanyahu have both been critical of the deal.
The Israeli military declassified internal "top secret" intelligence reports, in Hebrew, some of them partly redacted.
One, dated March 30, 2007, said: "Syria has set up, within its territory, a nuclear reactor for the production of plutonium, through North Korea, which according to an (initial) worst-case assessment is liable to be activated in approximately another year. To our assessment secretive and orderly for achieving a nuclear weapon."
Israeli intelligence predicted that the suspected reactor "would turn operational by the end of 2007".
The mission to destroy the facility started at 10.30 p.m. on Sept. 5 and ended with the return of the warplanes at 2.30 a.m. the next day, the Israeli military said.
"It is midnight, the moon is shining, thin with almost no light," one of the pilots recounted in a statement released by the army.
"I see from afar two points of light, the structure is before us, coming in for the attack," the pilot said, adding, it was a "direct hit."
The event was first made public by Syria, which, as reported by Reuters at the time, said in the early hours of Sept. 6 that Syrian air defenses had repelled an incursion by Israeli warplanes.
Syria, a signatory of the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has always denied that the site was a reactor or that Damascus engaged in nuclear cooperation with North Korea.
From Israel's perspective, the strike was an astounding success since it not only destroyed the site, but prevented further escalation and strengthened its deterrence in the region.
The Israeli military's announcement on Wednesday noted that the area in question, around Deir el-Zour, was captured by Daesh after the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011.
Had there been an active reactor there, the Israeli military said, it would have had "severe strategic implications on the entire Middle East as well as Israel and Syria."
Air force commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin said the current turmoil in Syria has further vindicated the strike, particularly since the reactor was in an area later captured by Daesh militants.
"Imagine what situation we would be in today if there was a nuclear reactor in Syria," Norkin said. "Israel's decision to destroy the reactor is one of the most important decisions taken here in the last 70 years."
The Israeli release contains a black-and-white aerial photograph captioned "before the attack" and showing a box-like structure amid desert dunes with smaller outlying buildings.
A series of black-and-white videos, taken above the target, shows the structure in cross-hairs. A male voice is heard counting down three seconds, a cloud of black smoke rises from the structure as it explodes. Other footage appears to show the aftermath - a smoldering hole in the ground.
Wednesday's release came ahead of the publication of a memoir by Olmert containing passages about the 2007 strike.
Israel and Syria have always been bitter enemies. Throughout Syria's seven-year civil war, Israel has carried out well over 100 airstrikes, most believed to have been aimed at suspected weapons shipments destined for the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militant group. Both Iran and Hezbollah are allied with Assad.
Last month, Israel shot down an Iranian drone that entered its airspace, triggering a clash in which an Israeli warplane crashed after being struck by Syrian anti-aircraft fire. Israel responded by bombing Syrian anti-aircraft batteries.
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