Book Review: Israel's 2007 decision to attack a Syrian nuclear facility is history and warning
August 9, 2019
By Edwin Black
Jerusalem Post editor Yaakov Katz probably had no way of knowing that this would be a perfect time to release his briskly-selling “Shadow Strike—Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power” (St. Martin’s Press). Or did he?
The world’s attention is once again and inevitably riveted to the nuclear threat from Iran, generating kaleidoscopic theories about a potential military strike to disable Tehran’s program. So, Katz’s case study of the run-up and run-down to the Jewish state’s clandestine destruction of Syria’s nuclear attempt in 2007 is now an imperative read.
Katz flexes both his editorial sinews and his prior government connections (as a former senior policy advisor) to deliver a suspenseful chronicle, bolstered by rapid-fire precision and continuous in-room details. Understandably, this volume will be consulted time and time again by military theorists and diplomatic observers, wondering how it might be done—just in case it must be done again.
From the first “you are there” opening scene that details Mossad Chief Meir Dagan’s White House presentation on the Syrian threat, the reader is put on notice to pay close attention. Never failing to paint in the details, Katz skillfully surrounds each personality in the story with a rich biography and a functioning profile in the time frame.
For example, in Chapter 3, when introducing Israeli security cabinet official Rafi Eitan, the author ensures we know Eitan is more than just a security functionary taking notes. We are told that Eitan is a man who did a few other things, such as capture Adolf Eichmann. He was also the man who visited an American reactor when 200 kilograms of highly enriched uranium disappeared and perhaps, who-knows, found their way to Israel’s ambiguous nuclear program in Dimona. Eitan also worked ground operations against the PLO in Lebanon. He also happened to be the man who recruited and managed Israel’s infamous spy in the American naval establishment, Jonathan Pollard. This type of in-depth storytelling and character building travels from page to page in Katz’ superb volume. Hence, readers are enveloped in more than the historical facts. They are transported to the tense, unfolding world of personalities, events, clashes, countdowns, and decision-making that resulted in the successful Syrian takedown.
So intense is the detailing of the decision process that the actual bombing of Syria’s reactor is but briefly reported in a few paragraphs as an ipso facto of the narrative.
It might be easy to conflate the 2007 Syrian challenge to the current Iranian crisis. Syria was only taking preliminary steps toward nuclearization. Iran now has the essentials for a nuclear bomb that can be assembled and deployed within weeks, according to many experts.
Tehran’s endless centrifuge arrays have spun off enough kilograms of 99 percent Highly Enriched Uranium that can be compressed into an unstable and dense core encased in an R-265 Shock Generator configured in a bifurcated sphere lined with 5mm grooves filled with PETN explosive that can be ignited with microsecond precision to create the synchronous implosion that will absorbed by an exploding bridgewire, sturdy enough to transduce and focus the massive implosion force triggering a neutron initiator to fire one particle into the warhead core to create the atomic chain reaction that will clap forth a murderous mushroom cloud.
Additionally, Iran has developed a fleet of mobile Shahab-3 missiles derived from the North Korean No Dong, each with a nosecone large enough to carry the nuclear warhead. Tehran also possesses the flight guidance and ignition control to detonate such a warhead precisely 550 meters above the ground—mimicking the bombing of Hiroshima—thus unleashing a ferocious nuclear inferno. In fact, Iran recently test-fired such a Shahab-3 as a reminder that it still knows how to pull the trigger.
As an added factor, Iran wields a Russian S-300 missile defense system fully capable of protecting its nuclear program and strike assets. All this just raises the stakes on decision-making and decisions.
When reading Katz’s book, remember that as complex and difficult was the Syrian strike, any similar decision on Iran’s nuclear capability will be infinitely more daunting and riskier. If such a decision is made, the men and women who make it will stand on the shoulders of those who knocked down Syria’s facility—but reach for a perilously higher bar.
Katz’s mastery of the facts and his relentless assemblage of puzzle pieces, together with his knowledge of the players and the potentialities, make Shadow Strike a powerful read. The volume also demands that Katz write another. No one knows if such a sequel will chronicle yet another shadow strike upon another nation to the north.
Edwin Black is the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of IBM and the Holocaust and the journalist who revealed the design specifics of Iran’s nuclear warhead.