WASHINGTON - Nearly two weeks have passed since Israeli warplanes reportedly conducted a mysterious raid against an as yet unidentified target in northeastern Syria. There are no official details of the incident, as both countries have remained tight-lipped.
In the absence of a clear picture of what happened in the early hours of September 6, speculation in the US mainstream media has grown as to what exactly the Israelis targeted, and why Syria
- assuming it was the target of an unprovoked attack - has been so muted in its response.
Was Israel's attack aimed at testing Syria's radar defenses? Did the air strike seek to disrupt arms shipments to Lebanon's Hezbollah? Was it a dress rehearsal for a possible future strike on Iranian nuclear facilities?
Feeding the speculation, a familiar clutch of hawks in the administration of US President George W Bush appear to be suggesting that Israel's apparent air strike targeted a joint North Korea-Syria nuclear venture.
Writing in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal more than a week before the incident, former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton asserted, "We know that both Iran and Syria have long cooperated with North Korea on ballistic-missile programs, and the prospect of cooperation on nuclear matters is not far-fetched.
"Whether and to what extent Iran, Syria or others might be 'safe havens' for North Korea's nuclear-weapons development, or may have already benefited from it, must be made clear," he wrote. Bolton resigned his position at the UN last year and currently serves as a senior fellow at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Comments made by a US State Department official last Friday fanned the flames and bolstered the neo-conservative argument. Andrew Semmel, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear non-proliferation policy, told the Associated Press that the US believes Syria has a number of "secret suppliers" to obtain nuclear equipment as part of a covert program.
The Bush administration has maintained a hardline policy stance on Syria. It has not had high-level diplomatic relations with the country since the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. The US has alleged that Syria played a role in the assassination.
Neo-conservatives appear to be re-igniting a political narrative that fits neatly with the infamous cast of the "axis of evil". While not explicitly mentioned, Syria has often been designated as a junior partner of Iran, Iraq and North Korea's "reign of terror" because of its support for Islamist opposition groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza.
"They [neo-cons] want to torpedo the North Korea deal, they have clung doggedly to making sure that there is no cooperation in Syria, and they're the same people who got us into this mess in the Middle East in the first place," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator and senior fellow at the Washington-based New America Foundation.
The focus on North Korea comes as the US prepares to implement the six-nation agreement to end Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons program, a diplomatic approach that has drawn the ire of policy hawks such as Bolton.
"Bolton represents the crowd that is very distressed that the US has declared defeat in North Korea by trusting the North Koreans. They would like to scuttle that agreement," wrote Syria expert Josh Landis on his widely read weblog Syriacomment.org.
"While doing it, anything they can drag in to boost the notion of weapons transfers between Korea and Syria and Iran will be icing on the cake. Israeli planes were trying to get the goods," he wrote.
Some US analysts have been very dubious of an actual Syrian nuclear threat, describing the speculation surrounding the incident as a manufactured stunt aimed at advancing the neo-conservative agenda.
Joseph Cirincione, director for nuclear policy at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, according to an interview with Foreign Policy, said, "This story is nonsense. The Washington Post story should have been headlined 'White House officials try to push North Korea-Syria connection'. This is a political story, not a threat story.
"Once again, this appears to be the work of a small group of officials leaking cherry-picked, unvetted 'intelligence' to key reporters in order to promote a pre-existing political agenda. If this sounds like the run-up to the war in Iraq, it should. This time it appears aimed at derailing the US-North Korean agreement that administration hardliners think is appeasement. Some Israelis want to thwart any dialogue between the US and Syria," said Cirincione, who previously served as director for non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The Israeli media - bound by an army censor that restricts coverage of the incident - have relied largely on foreign press reports to reconstruct the incident.
"The Israeli press have gone out of their way to say to the Israeli public, 'We know [the story], we're going to selectively quote from the overseas rumors and you can fill in the gaps,'" the New America Foundation's Levy said, adding that the press "was dismissive about the reports about arming Hezbollah, and gave greater weight to those connecting Syria and North Korea".
Syria lodged a formal complaint with the UN on Tuesday over the "flagrant violation" of its airspace last week by the Israeli warplanes, which Damascus claims dropped munitions on its territory. Israel and Syria have technically been at war since 1967, when Israel occupied the Golan Heights during the Six Day War.
The air incursion follows a summer that saw heightened tension between the two countries. "Something will come to light and will make it clear to everyone - the Israelis were sitting on intelligence," said Levy.
Experts are still unsure of what that intelligence entails, and whether is it "nuclear", "non-conventional", "chemical" or nothing of the sort. Regardless, in most of the narratives, the North Korea connection remains a salient point.
But whatever happened in the early hours of September 6 does not appear to have soured Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's efforts to restart negotiations with his adversary. Olmert announced on Monday that Israel was prepared to hold negotiations with Syria, without preconditions and without ultimatums, according to the Jerusalem Post.
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