Israel’s military admitted on Tuesday what intelligence communities around the world had long known — that Israeli airstrikes had taken out a would-be nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007.
In reporting the strike, Israel said it had done so in part to warn its adversaries in the region, like Iran. But surely Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and other countries with spy services already knew the action Israel had taken.
It’s unlikely Iran or Syria needed a current reminder that Israel would fight in the skies over Syria to protect its interests after a massive Israeli air offensive downed an Iranian drone and reportedly took out half of Syria’s air defenses in February.
But one element of Israel’s 2007 strike on a nuclear reactor near Deir Ezzor that bears repeating and reexamination is the fact that the terror group ISIS held control of that area for three full years.
“Look at nukes as an insurance policy — at the end of the day, if you’ve got a nuke, it’s an umbrella for all of the other activity that could potentially spark conflict with your enemies,” Jonathan Schanzer, a Syria expert and the senior vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider. “If your enemies want to respond to you, they’re going to feel inhibited.”
This may have been Syria’s calculus in 2007 when it set about a clandestine nuclear weapons program, reportedly with the help of embedded North Koreans.
But in 2011, a popular, pro-democratic uprising in Syria sparked what would become a civil war that has dragged on to this day. During the conflict, Syrian President Bashar Assad has lost control of the majority of his country, with some parts under the control of rebel forces, some parts under the control of Kurdish forces, and from 2014 to 2017, much of the country under ISIS’ control.
ISIS held Deir Ezzor and the surrounding regions for three solid years, during which time they looted and pillaged whatever resources were available and ready for sale, including oil from the country’s rich oilfields.
If Israel had not taken out the reactor in 2007, it’s entirely possible ISIS could have taken custody of it. With access to radioactive materials, it’s possible ISIS could have cooked up a dirty bomb for use in terrorism, or even detonated a full on nuclear device.
It’s reasonable to expect that a nuclear-capable ISIS would have more leverage, and could possibly force concessions from its opponents or prompt other nuclear states to strike first.
“The Middle East is unstable,” Schanzer said. “One never knows when the next popular uprising or the next moment of intense instability might hit.”
Even states like Iran, where the current government has been in power since 1979, could fall prey to a popular uprising that could collapse the regime “overnight,” according to Schanzer.
“Imagine if in Syria today we were trying to track loose nukes,” Schanzer said. “Imagine if a country like Yemen had nuclear weapons.”
While nuclear weapons may deter state actors from invading a country or pushing it too far, they do not protect against domestic upheaval, like the 2011 Syrian uprising that became overrun with Islamist hardliners like ISIS and Al Qaeda.