It being Super-Tuesday, Sy Hersh's latest article on what exactly the Israelis bombed in the Syrian desert last September is likely to be mostly overlooked. Which is a great pity because it's the most in-depth investigation I've seen of what went on and why. It even has - gasp - named sources. Both Smintheus at DKos and Ken at Bonehead Compendium wrote to flag this one up for me and I heartily recommend giving it a full read.
The short version - reports that the site was a nuclear reactor are almost certainly israeli or neocon spin. It was far more likely to be either a missile factory, a chemical weapons factory or a combination of both. (This was the conclusion I came to some months ago after reading as much as I could grab on the subject, so I'm predisposed to a favorable reading of Hersh on this). But what it actually was no longer matters. Two messages have come out loud and clear from the large amount of speculation surrounding the raid.
The first is that Israel, following its questionable success against Hezboullah, needed to restore a perception of its military competence.
“I hesitate to answer any journalist’s questions about it,” Faruq al-Shara, the Syrian Vice-President, told me. “Israel bombed to restore its credibility, and their objective is for us to keep talking about it. And by answering your questions I serve their objective. Why should I volunteer to do that?” Shara denied that his nation has a nuclear-weapons program. “The volume of articles about the bombing is incredible, and it’s not important that it’s a lie,” he said.The second is that America may be wagging the Israeli tail but it doesn't have complete control over Israel's actions.
...That notion was echoed by the ambassador of an Israeli ally who is posted in Tel Aviv. “The truth is not important,” the ambassador told me. “Israel was able to restore its credibility as a deterrent. That is the whole thing. No one will know what the real story is.”
Shortly after the bombing, a Chinese envoy and one of the Bush Administration’s senior national-security officials met in Washington. The Chinese envoy had just returned from a visit to Tehran, a person familiar with the discussion told me, and he wanted the White House to know that there were moderates there who were interested in talks. The national-security official rejected that possibility and told the envoy, as the person familiar with the discussion recalled, “‘You are aware of the recent Israeli statements about Syria. The Israelis are extremely serious about Iran and its nuclear program, and I believe that, if the United States government is unsuccessful in its diplomatic dealings with Iran, the Israelis will take it out militarily.’ He then told the envoy that he wanted him to convey this to his government—that the Israelis were serious.Which puts Bush's recent pronouncements that America must not be seen as a "paper tiger" in the region into a whole new perspective, especially when his own ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad is freely admitting that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have strengthened Iran's hand in the Middle East. Is Bush more worried about Iran's perception of America's toothlessness, or of Israel's perception of America's value in the region?
“He was telling the Chinese leadership that they’d better warn Iran that we can’t hold back Israel, and that the Iranians should look at Syria and see what’s coming next if diplomacy fails,” the person familiar with the discussion said. “His message was that the Syrian attack was in part aimed at Iran.”
What about Khalilzhad? It seems to me that he might finally have parted company with the pro-Israel lobby within the neocon circles he has always been a part of. But from Cheney on down they must be aware that he knows where all the bodies are buried - he was integral, for instance, in the Taliban's original lionising as heroes against Russia (even inviting Taliban leaders to dinner in Texas) and was intimate of the process whereby they and Al Qaeda became enemy number one after getting US aid for so long. They'll be wary of alienating him to the point where his resignation is followed by a tell-all memoir.