Israel Confirms 2007 Attack on Syrian Nuclear Reactor

After 11 years, detailed information regarding one of Israel's most audacious military operations – the air strike that destroyed the Syrian nuclear reactor, then under construction, in September 2007 – has finally come to light. This is the story of Operation Outside the Box

Photo: IDF

During the night between September 5th and September 6th, 2007, the Syrian nuclear reactor, designed specifically to produce nuclear weapons to be used against Israel, was reduced to ashes and dust by ordnance IAF fighters dropped on it.

11 years later, Operation Outside the Box comes to light this morning. It is the story of a daring operation intended to destroy the Syrian nuclear reactor that was under construction and nearing completion in the Deir ez-Zor area, about 450 kilometers from Damascus – with the intention of eliminating the nuclear threat the State of Israel faced.

By now we may report that the actual strike was carried out by eight IAF fighters: four F-15I Ra'am fighters from the IAF's 69th Squadron, two F-16I Sufa fighters from the IAF's 253rd Squadron and two F-16I Sufa fighters from the IAF's 119th Squadron. In the dead of night, these eight fighters took off from the Ramon and Hatzerim airbases, destroyed the Syrian nuclear reactor and returned back home unharmed.

In late 2004, the IDF Intelligence Directorate (AMAN) had found that foreign specialists were assisting the Syrians in their attempts to obtain nuclear weapons. Both AMAN and the Mossad managed to obtain sensitive information regarding this issue.

For example, one of the confidential papers published by AMAN, titled "The Intelligence Effort to uncover the Possible Existence of a Military Nuclear Project in Syria," outlined two possible options the Syrians may resort to in order to obtain nuclear weapons: Pakistani assistance and North Korean assistance.

As of 2005, Israeli military intelligence began accumulating materials regarding a nuclear reactor to be installed in Syria. In January 2006, the possibility of a nuclear reactor actually being built in Syria emerged for the first time. A top-secret paper issued by AMAN's Analysis Division on January 25, 2006, suggested: "Perhaps a nuclear reactor by North Korea?" By April 2006, AMAN had identified the structure of the Syrian nuclear reactor and several other suspicious buildings near Deir ez-Zor, to the north-east of the Syrian capital Damascus.

AMAN estimated that the reactor would become operational near the end of 2007. It was merely a year after the Second Lebanon War and the heavy toll it had exacted on the State of Israel. In Israel, the authorities were fully aware of the fact that attacking the Syrian nuclear reactor could lead to a new war in the north, against the Syrians and possibly, once again, against Hezbollah as well, but the elimination of the nuclear reactor had to be accomplished nevertheless.

Training Begins

As of early 2007, both the IDF Intelligence Directorate and the Mossad obtained and delivered groundbreaking intelligence that proved beyond any doubt that a nuclear reactor was being built in Syria with North Korean assistance. The Mossad, under Meir Dagan, provided the decisive proof that elevated the reliability of the intelligence available to the Israeli authorities back then from 20% to 90% probability. At that time, AMAN and the Mossad also realized that the Syrian nuclear project was progressing very rapidly. How far had it progressed? It was estimated that the nuclear reactor would become operational as early as 2007 after the Syrians were spotted connecting the reactor to a water supply source – the nearby Euphrates River, close to the Syrian-Iraqi border.

The Israeli Air Force started training for the attack against the reactor until they were able to provide the political echelon with the option of ordering the IAF to attack the reactor at short notice of 12 hours only.

On September 6, a little after midnight, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Deputy Chief of Staff Moshe Kaplinsky and AMAN chief Amos Yadlin arrived at the IAF 'pit' (underground command center). IAF Commandant Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedi commanded the actual attack while the pilots maintained radio silence and employed various munitions.

The operation started at 22:30 PM and ended with the safe return of the fighters at 02:30 AM. The Syrian reactor was destroyed completely. AMAN estimated that it was damaged beyond repair. The IDF prepared for escalation to war and to defend the home front against the possible launching of missiles and rockets by the other side in response to the attack. For that reason, it was decided that the attack should not be reported until morning.

During the civil war in Syria, the area of Deir ez-Zor was dominated by ISIS. One can only imagine what ISIS would have done if the reactor and the nuclear weapons it contained had fallen into their hands.

Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the IDF Chief of Staff in those days, had set three criteria for the success of the operation: the complete destruction of the Syrian reactor, effective prevention of possible escalation and enhancement of Israeli deterrence. Apparently, all those involved in the operation accomplished their missions.