As the death toll mounts in Syria and the country slides deeper into civil war, the world should be thankful that the Assad regime never succeeded in developing nuclear weapons -- which almost happened in 2007.
The danger presented today by the presence of Syrian chemical and biological weapons is bad enough. Just think how much more dangerous the situation would have been if there were loose nukes lying around.
According to a new history of the Mossad by reporters Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman, Spies Against Armageddon, Israel had become suspicious that the Syrians were building a nuclear facility with North Korean help. The authors said Israel sent Mossad operatives and a special forces unit into Syria several times to take samples of soil, water and vegetation and in March 2007 managed to secure photos taken inside the facility. Who took those photos remains the most closely-guarded aspect of the operation.
According to Raviv and Melman, the images provided clear evidence that Syria was building a graphite reactor similar to North Korea's Yongbyon reactor which was used to build nuclear bombs. The Mossad assessment was that the reactor would become "hot" within a few months and would produce enough plutonium for a nuclear bomb within a year.
Once it went online, the reactor could not have been attacked without the danger of spreading deadly radiation throughout the region.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Washington in June 2007 and asked then-President George W. Bush to bomb the facility. Bush refused and suggested instead that Western countries should instead "expose" the Syrian reactor. This failed to satisfy Olmert and the decision was taken to destroy the reactor -- which happened in a two-minute air raid on the evening of Sept. 6, 2007.
Syria responded to the attack by denying it had been building a nuclear plant. However, the Syrians refused to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit the site until they had cleared away the rubble and replaced the soil. Still, the inspectors were not fooled and found enough evidence to convince them that the structure had contained a North Korean-style reactor.
The IAEA said in a release in June 2011 that the destroyed building "was very likely" a nuclear reactor. "The Syrian Government was given ample time by the Agency to cooperate fully concerning the Dair Alzour site, but did not do so. Nevertheless, we had obtained enough information to draw a conclusion," IAEA director general Yukiya Amano said.
This, of course, was not the first time Israel had saved the Middle East and the world from a dangerous nuclear program. In 1981, Israel destroyed Iraq's Osirek reactor. When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait nine years later, he did not have a nuclear weapon in his arsenal to deter the United States and its allies who acted to reverse that act of aggression.
The Iraqi and Syrian operations are examples of Israel braving international condemnation to defend its vital security interests. But as the Syrian situation proves today, Israel did the entire world a huge favor in both cases.