Israel confirms it destroyed Syria’s nuclear reactor a decade ago

Israel lifted the censorship gag on details surrounding the daring operation that destroyed a Syrian nuclear threat. 

By: Aryeh Savir, World Israel News

A decade after the crucial secret operation, Israel officially acknowledged that it attacked and destroyed the Al-Kibar nuclear facility in Syria, which was in its last stages of construction at the time.

During the night between September 5 and 6, 2007, Israel secretly bombed the nuclear reactor, in accordance with the Begin Doctrine, which states that no Israeli adversary in the Middle East would be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon.

In a secret mission known as operation “Out Of The Box,” authorized by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, eight Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft flew along the Syrian-Turkish border shortly before 1 a.m. and destroyed the Syrian nuclear facility.

The Syrian nuclear project operated under a heavy cloak of secrecy for about six years prior to its destruction. The Al Kibar reactor was situated 900 yards from the Euphrates River and halfway between the borders with Turkey and Iraq, far from Syria’s biggest cities, in the Deir ez-Zor region, 280 miles northeast of Damascus.

For two years prior to the attack, officials in the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate were monitoring the Syrian nuclear project. Their intelligence suggested that the facility would become active toward the end of 2007, which prompted the IDF to initiate an attack.

In March 2007, the Mossad – Israel’s national intelligence agency – raided the home of the head of Syria’s atomic energy commission in Vienna, where they discovered conclusive information about the reactor.

The information recovered by the Mossad operatives included some three dozen color photographs taken from inside the Syrian building, indicating that it was a top-secret plutonium nuclear reactor. The photographs obtained by the Mossad also showed workers from North Korea at the site. The sole purpose of this kind of plutonium reactor, in the Mossad’s analysis, was to produce an atomic bomb.

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Olmert: With or without US support

The attack was launched after intense discussions between the American administration, under the leadership of President George W. Bush, and the Israelis.

At a meeting in Washington on June 19 that year, Olmert told Bush that if the US did not destroy the reactor, Israel would do it, even if it lacked US support. Finally, the US declined to participate but did not prevent the Israelis from carrying through with the raid.

The IAF had very little time to prepare for the attack or to account for possible contingencies, such as retaliation by the Syrian forces. Once the attack plan was ready, however, it was possible to execute it within 12 hours from the moment the order would be given.

Prior to the attack, then-IAF Commander, Maj. Gen. (Res’) Eliezer Shkedi personally addressed the combat crews, feeling it was of operational significance, in order to emphasize the transition from routine security measures to a strategic operation while stressing the pilots’ responsibility. At around 7 p.m., hours before the attack commenced, the target was revealed to the aircrews.

“Combatants, today you will be sent to participate in a mission of great importance to the State of Israel and the Jewish people. The mission is to destroy the target and disengage without aircraft losses, as stealthily as possible. The mission is kept under the highest secrecy, both before and after execution, until further notice. I trust you, believe in you, and am convinced of your capabilities. Good luck, Eliezer Shkedi”

The attack

Shortly after midnight, Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni, Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, the deputy Chief of the General Staff, the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate and the head of the Operations Directorate assembled in the aerial war room, the Bor, in the heart of Tel Aviv. From there, they followed all aircrafts’ aerial locations and the communication systems.

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The “Ra’am” (F-15I) formation that led the assault took off from Hatzerim Air Force Base in the south at around 10 p.m. The second formation left two minutes later, joined by the rest of the “Sufa” (F-16I) fighter jets, and they refueled together in the air. The aircraft took off in radio silence.

The jets flew low to remain undetected. The entire operation took four hours. At around midnight, the leading formation had reached the necessary distance from the target and began ascending in preparation for the attack maneuver. The ordnance drop occurred minutes later. The aircraft broke contact, and the next formations followed in order to attack. After all the munitions were dropped, the final “Sufa” fighter pilot radioed “Arizona from all of us,” meaning that all of the bombs hit their target and exploded as planned.

The Military Intelligence Directorate estimated that the nuclear facility was damaged beyond repair. As the IDF was preparing for Syrian retaliation, it decided that information about the operation should not be disclosed to the general public at the time.

The operation was deemed a success. The nuclear facility was destroyed and an escalation in the region was prevented.

Only a few years later, the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group captured the Deir ez-Zor region. One can only imagine how much havoc they could have wreaked with a nuclear facility in their hands. The scenarios range from an existential threat to the Jewish state to the disruption of the area’s strategic balance.

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‘One of the best decisions made in Israel’

The destruction of the Syrian reactor was an historic operation of great significance for the State of Israel and the Jewish People and one of the most important military operations in the IAF’s history.

“When faced with today’s reality, the decision to destroy the reactor is one of the best decisions made in Israel over the past 70 years”, declared Lt. Gen. Amikam Norkin, current commander of the IAF. “The principles according to which the IAF prepared for the attack are also the IAF’s principles today. They help the air force maintain its relevance.”

Two months after the operation, Olmert concluded: “There were many disputes regarding all sorts of alternatives, but in the end, we all know one thing – the strategic force, which makes the difference in Israel’s international strength, is the aerial force. Our aerial force will be the determining factor in all possible confrontations that we will possibly – hopefully not – deal with in the future.”

Lifting of censorship coincided with the publication of Olmert’s memoirs and follows a petition to the High Court of Justice by Israel’s Channel 10, which is now permitted to air an interview with Olmert and the then-Mossad chief, the late Meir Dagan, on the bombing of the reactor.

Current Chief of Staff, Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, OC Northern Command at the time of the operation, said the message that should be taken from the incident is that “Israel will never accept an existential threat against it. That was the message in 2007, and that is the message to our enemies in both the near and distant future.”