A week after Syria accused Israel of infiltrating its airspace and jettisoning ammunition in its territory, officials in both Damascus and Jerusalem continue to keep the details of the incident under a heavy veil of secrecy. Syria lodged a formal complaint with the United Nations on Tuesday, saying that Israel's "breach of airspace of the Syrian Arab Republic" constituted a "flagrant violation." Israeli officials, meanwhile, continue to maintain a studied silence.
In recent days, however, several reports have emerged quoting anonymous US sources confirming that the Israeli foray took place and suggesting Israeli forces had carried out a provocative attack on a strategic target.
CNN reported that the attack, which took place in northern Syria overnight between Sept. 5 and 6, may have targeted weapons shipments from Iran en route to Hizbullah guerrillas in Lebanon. The news network added that its sources suggested that the strike included Israeli ground forces, which helped the aircraft pinpoint a strike that left behind "a large hole in the desert." Beyond the details of the attack, sources in the US offered their own interpretation of the significance of the strike, CNN reported:
Sources in the U.S. government and military confirmed to CNN's Barbara Starr that the airstrike did happen, and that they are happy to have Israel carry the message to both Syria and Iran that they can get in and out and strike when necessary.
Right now, diplomats in the region are trying to ensure the incident does not escalate.
The allegations sharpened tensions in the Middle East after months of speculation that an Israeli-Syrian conflict over the Golan Heights was only a matter of time. Syria initially said that it reserved the right to retaliate in a place and time of its own choosing. But according to the British Broadcasting Corp., the infiltration is being seen as a boost to Israel's "deterrent capacity," which was damaged after it fought Hizbullah to a draw last year in Lebanon.
Syria denies reports that the Israeli infiltration was aimed at weapons shipments destined for Lebanon, reports Iran's Fars News Agency. A Syrian military source said the media reports were leaked by Israel in an effort to sow dissension in Lebanon and to threaten Iran.
If such allegations are true, how come Israel suffices to such unofficial reports and does not announce the reality and the goals of its dangerous intrusion in an official statement," Fars news reported, citing a Syrian military source.
"Where was the alleged truck coming from and where was it going? Why has the aggression happened in the northern parts of Syria and in the vicinity of our shared borders with Turkey?"
The attack is also focusing attention on Syria's relationship with North Korea. The New York Times quoted a Bush administration official who said that Israel has carried out spy sorties over Syria to photograph suspected nuclear installations that rely on material supplied by North Korea.
The administration official said Israeli officials believed that North Korea might be unloading some of its nuclear material on Syria.
"The Israelis think North Korea is selling to Iran and Syria what little they have left," the official said. He said it was unclear whether the Israeli strike had produced any evidence that might validate that belief.
Citing intelligence provided to the US by Israel, The Washington Post reports that the fear of Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation is based on information collected over the past six months.
"The evidence … includes dramatic satellite imagery that led some U.S. officials to believe that the facility could be used to produce material for nuclear weapons.
The new information, particularly images received in the past 30 days, has been restricted to a few senior officials under the instructions of national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, leaving many in the intelligence community unaware of it or uncertain of its significance, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Some cautioned that initial reports of suspicious activity are frequently reevaluated over time and were skeptical that North Korea and Syria, which have cooperated on missile technology, would have a joint venture in the nuclear arena.
However in the absence of any on-the-record details of the incident, the flurry of anonymous official commentary is only likely to enhance the ambiguity surrounding the strike rather than clear the fog. A BBC analysis concluded:
There are still more questions than answers in this affair. More information is slowly seeping out.
But in many ways it is remarkable that in an age of instant news and the worldwide web spreading information almost at the speed of light, there can still be episodes like this that remain shrouded in so many layers of mystery.