Operation Orchard (2007)

Operation Orchard was an Israeli airstrike on a nuclear reactor site in the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria carried out just after midnight (local time) on September 6, 2007. The White House and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) later confirmed that American intelligence had also indicated the site was a nuclear facility with a military purpose, though Syria denies this. An International Atomic Energy Agency Syria has disputed these claims. In April 2011, the IAEA officially confirmed that the site was a nuclear reactor. (IAEA) investigation reported evidence of uranium and graphite and concluded that the site bore features resembling an undeclared nuclear reactor. IAEA was unable to confirm or deny the nature of the site because, according to IAEA, Syria failed to provide necessary cooperation with the IAEA investigation

According to news reports, the raid was carried out by the Israeli Air Force’s (IAF) 69th Squadron of F-15Is, F-16Is, and an ELINT aircraft; as many as eight aircraft participated and at least four of those aircraft crossed into Syrian airspace. The fighters were equipped with AGM-65 Maverick missiles, 500 lb bombs, and external fuel tanks. One report stated that a team of elite Israeli Shaldag special-forces commandos arrived at the site the day before so that they could highlight the target with laser beams, while a later report identified (IDF) Sayeret Matkal special-forces commandos as involved.

Pre-Strike Activity

In July 2007, an explosion occurred in Aleppo, northern Syria. The official Sana news agency said 15 Syrian military personnel were killed and 50 people were injured. The agency reported only that “very explosive products” blew up after fire broke out at the facility. The September 26 edition of Jane’s Defence Weekly claimed that the explosion happened during tests to weaponise a Scud-C missile with mustard gas.

A senior U.S. official told ABC News that, in early summer 2007, Israel had discovered a suspected Syrian nuclear facility, and that Israeli intelligence then “managed to either co-opt one of the facility’s workers or to insert a spy posing as an employee” at the suspected Syrian nuclear site, and through this was able to get pictures of the target from on the ground.”

According to The Sunday Times, members of Israel’s Sayeret Matkal elite commando unit covertly raided the suspected Syrian nuclear facility before the airstrike and brought nuclear material back to Israel. Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported that in August 2007, two helicopters ferried 12 Israelis to the site in order to get photographic evidence and soil samples. Anonymous sources report that once the material was tested and confirmed to have come from North Korea, the United States gave Israel approval to destroy the site.

The Syrian reactor, before and after.
The Syrian reactor, before and after.

Senior U.S. officials later denied any involvement in or approval of the attack, but were informed in advance. In his memoir Decision Points, President George W. Bush writes that Prime Minister Olmert requested that the U.S. bomb the Syrian site, but Bush refused, saying the intelligence was not definitive on whether the plant was part of a weapons program. However, Bush also explains Olmert did what he thought was better for his people. Another report indicated that Israel planned to attack the site as early as July 14, but some U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, preferred a public condemnation of Syria, thereby delaying the military strike until Israel feared the information would leak to the press. The Sunday Times also reports that the mission was “personally directed” by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

According to the Washington Post, an “unnamed U.S. expert on the Middle East” who had interviewed Israeli participants in the raid, has said that three days before the attack, a North Korean ship carrying materials labeled as cement had docked in the Syrian port of Tartus. After the strike North Korea publicly condemned the raid. The following day, the Israeli cabinet convened for an emergency session. An Israeli on-line data analyst, Ronen Solomon, found an internet trace for the 1,700-tonne cargo ship, Al Hamed, which allegedly was docked at Tartus on September 3. By April 25, 2008 the ship was under the flag of the Comoros.

Several newspapers have reported that Iranian general Ali Reza Asgari, who disappeared in February in a possible defection to the West, supplied Western intelligence with information about the site.

Target

CNN first reported that the airstrike targeted weapons “destined for Hezbollah militants” and that the strike “left a big hole in the desert”. One week later, The Washington Post reported that U.S. and Israeli intelligence gathered information on a nuclear facility constructed in Syria with North Korean aid, and that the target was a “facility capable of making unconventional weapons”. According to The Sunday Times, there were claims of a cache of nuclear materials from North Korea.

Syrian Vice-President Faruq Al Shara announced on September 30 that the Israeli target was the Arab Center for the Studies of Arid Zones and Dry Lands, but the center itself immediately denied this. The following day Syrian President Bashar al-Assad described the bombing target as an “incomplete and empty military complex that was still under construction”. He did not provide any further details about the nature of the structure or its purpose.

On 14 October The New York Times cited U.S. and Israeli military intelligence sources saying that the target had been a nuclear reactor under construction by North Korean technicians, with a number of the technicians having been killed in the strike. On December 2 The Sunday Times quoted Uzi Even, a professor at Tel Aviv University and a founder of the Negev Nuclear Research Center, saying that he believes that the Syrian site was built to process plutonium and assemble a nuclear bomb, using weapons-grade plutonium originally from North Korea. He also said that Syria’s quick burial of the target site with tons of soil was a reaction to fears of radiation.

On March 19, 2009, Hans Rühle, former chief of the planning staff of the German Defense Ministry, wrote in the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung that Iran was financing a Syrian nuclear reactor. Rühle did not identify the sources of his information. He wrote that U.S. intelligence had detected North Korean ship deliveries of construction supplies to Syria that started in 2002, and that the construction was spotted by American satellites in 2003, who detected nothing unusual, partly because the Syrians had banned radio and telephones from the site and handled communications solely by messengers. He said that “The analysis was conclusive that it was a North Korean-type reactor, a gas graphite model” and that “Israel estimates that Iran had paid North Korea between $1 billion and $2 billion for the project”. He also wrote that just before the Israeli operation, a North Korean ship was intercepted en route to Syria with nuclear fuel rods.

The Operation

During the night, an Israeli transport helicopter entered Syrian airspace and dropped a team of Shaldag Unit commandos into the area. The commandos took up positions close to the nuclear site. Israeli Air Force F-15I Ra’am fighter jets armed with laser-guided bombs, escorted by F-16I Sufa fighter jets and an ELINT aircraft, took off from Hatzerim Airbase. The ELINT aircraft successfully obscured the attacking aircraft from detection by Syrian radars. When the aircraft approached, the Shaldag commandos directed their targeting laser at the facility, and the F-15Is released their bombs. The facility was totally destroyed.

According to Aviation Week and Space Technology, U.S. industry and military sources speculated that the Israelis may have used technology similar to America’s Suter airborne network attack system to allow their planes to pass undetected by radar into Syria. This would make it possible to feed enemy radar emitters with false targets, and even directly manipulate enemy sensors. Syria is reported to have the new state-of-the art Pantsir-S1E Russian SAM systems. However, the system had not been functional at that time. The Syrian air defense that was operational at that time was suspected to be the Tor-M1 (SA-15) and outdated Pechora-2A (S-125/SA-3) surface-to-air missiles. On their way back to Israel, the aircraft flew over Turkey and jettisoned fuel tanks over the Hatay and Gaziantep provinces.

Aviation Week and Space Technology later reported that Israeli aircraft actually engaged a Syrian radar site in Tall al-Abuad, both with conventional precision bombs, electronic attack, and brute force jamming. They added that prior to the raid, the U.S. gave Israel information on Syrian air defenses.

In May 2008, a report in IEEE Spectrum cited European sources claiming that the Syrian air defense network had been deactivated by a secret built-in kill switch activated by the Israelis.

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