JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel for the first time admitted that it bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 and said on Wednesday the strike should be a warning to Iran that it would not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons.
The military released previously classified cockpit footage, photographs and intelligence documents about its Sept. 6, 2007, air strike on the Al-Kubar facility near Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria.
It said the reactor was being constructed with help from North Korea and had been months away from activation. Amos Yadlin, Israel’s military intelligence chief at the time, said on Israel Radio that even with a functioning reactor, it would have taken Syria years to build a nuclear weapon.
Reuters has been unable to immediately verify the Israeli material.
Israel’s decision to go public comes after repeated calls in recent months by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the United States and international community to take tougher action on Iran, Syria’s ally.
Netanyahu said on Wednesday Israel was determined to prevent its enemies from obtaining nuclear weapons.
“The Israeli government, the Israel Defense Forces and the Mossad prevented Syria from developing nuclear capability. They are worthy of full praise for this. Israel’s policy was and remains consistent - to prevent our enemies from arming themselves with nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.
Intelligence minister, Israel Katz, said earlier on Twitter: “The (2007) operation and its success made clear that Israel will never allow nuclear weaponry to be in the hands of those who threaten its existence - Syria then, and Iran today.”
Iran, which says its nuclear programme has only peaceful aims, signed a 2015 deal under which it accepted curbs on its nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief. U.S. President Donald Trump and Netanyahu have both been critical of the deal.
The Israeli military described in detail events leading up to the night of Sept 5-6, 2007, in which, it said, eight warplanes, F-16s and F-15s, carried out the mission after taking off from the Ramon and Hatzerim air bases.
They flew to Deir al-Zor region, 450 km (270 miles) northwest of Damascus, and dropped 18 tonnes of munitions on the site, it said.
Yadlin said Israel decided at the time against acknowledging the raid on the reactor so as not to provoke Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into retaliating. “No core. No war,” Yadlin said about Israel’s goal.
The Israeli military on Wednesday declassified internal “top secret” intelligence reports, in Hebrew, some of them partly redacted.
One, dated March 30, 2007, said: “Syria has set up, within its territory, a nuclear reactor for the production of plutonium, through North Korea, which according to an (initial) worst-case assessment is liable to be activated in approximately another year. To our assessment [REDACTED] secretive and orderly [REDACTED] for achieving a nuclear weapon.”
Israeli intelligence predicted that the suspected reactor “would turn operational by the end of 2007”.
The mission to destroy the reactor started at 10.30 p.m. on Sept. 5 and ended with the return of the warplanes at 2.30 a.m. the next day, the Israeli military said.
The disclosure on Wednesday stemmed in part, Yadlin said, from years of pressure by the Israeli media on military censors to allow them to publish Israeli-sourced information about the raid and the release on Wednesday of memoirs by Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister who ordered the bombing.
The event was first made public by Syria, which, as reported by Reuters at the time, said in the early hours of Sept. 6 that its air defences had repelled an incursion by Israeli warplanes.
Syria, a signatory of the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has always denied that the site was a reactor or that Damascus engaged in nuclear cooperation with North Korea.
In his 2010 memoir “Decision Points,” former U.S. President George W. Bush disclosed he discussed intelligence about the Syrian facility with Olmert before it was destroyed but did not give him the green light for the raid.
In 2008 the United States presented what it described as intelligence showing that North Korea had helped Syria with “covert nuclear activities.” At the time Syria dismissed the accusations as part of a campaign to discredit the Damascus government.
The Israeli release contains a black-and-white aerial photograph captioned “before the attack” and showing a box-like structure amid desert dunes with smaller outlying buildings.
A series of black-and-white videos, taken above the target, shows the structure in cross-hairs. A male voice is heard counting down three seconds, a cloud of black smoke rises from the structure as it explodes. Other footage appears to show the aftermath - a smouldering hole in the ground.
“Arizona”, one pilot radioed to military headquarters in Tel Aviv, giving the code word for a successful operation.
Writing by Dan Williams and Stephen Farrell; Editing by Janet Lawrence