By James G. Zumwalt
The Washington Times
October 8, 2007
The “Shell Game” has been around for centuries. Using three empty half-shells and a pea, a con artist places the pea under one of them, in full view of the audience. With lightning speed, he shuffles the order of the shells, pausing to ask a gullible bettor under which shell the pea could be found. The con artist’s sleight of hand always is quicker than the bettor’s eye. Only after the duped bettor chooses a shell that always turns up empty does the con artist then effect the pea’s reappearance under a different one.
Interestingly, an international shell game of sorts, played by nations unfriendly to the U.S. and Israel, may well have prompted the latter’s attack early last month against Syria. And, if true, it raises the specter that a similar shell game, played four years earlier, may have duped an unwitting U.S. as well.
After 34 years of peace with Syria, what kind of threat would have prompted Israel to take military action against Damascus? The attack by Israeli aircraft on a target in northern Syria has been followed by unusual silence. The normal tendency is for an aggrieved state to muster international criticism against the attacking state, unless the former has something to hide. But Damascus remains eerily silent while Israel — the constant target of international criticism — receives no condemnation. (Apparently, what happens in Syria, stays in Syria).
There has been one noticeable exception to this silence — North Korea. Historically, North Korea has remained silent whenever hostilities in the Middle East erupt, so it was surprising to see Pyongyang jump to Syria’s defense after the September attack.
Little by little, some details are surfacing.
Israel’s concerns about certain activities in Syria seemed to have coincided with certain successes of the U.S. in the Six Party Talks with North Korea. During the year, Washington has pressed Pyongyang, first, to continue the on-again, off-again talks; second, to shut down its nuclear facility at Yongbyon; and, third, to discontinue its nuclear weapons program, accounting for nuclear technology and equipment. Washington, hoping to achieve a much-needed foreign policy success, was encouraged by gradual North Korean concessions to so comply.
Those of us long critical of Pyongyang’s inability to honor any agreement were stymied as to what its real objective was in now exercising such flexibility in the wake of its historic recalcitrance — even allowing international inspectors access to Yongbyon. We now have our answer — for it appears North Korea and Syria were involved in playing a nuclear weapons shell game.
Israeli intelligence discovered North Korea, as it appeared to dismantle its nuclear capability at home, covertly was sending its nuclear equipment to Syria for reassembly. To ensure this intelligence was correct, Israel detached a commando team into Syria to obtain physical evidence. Undetected, the team was successful.
Israel then shared the evidence with the United States, seeking American support for an Israeli attack on the nuclear weapons facility. After careful consideration, Washington gave its support, and Israel immediately carried out its attack.
A second commando team entered Syria to provide a directional beacon to “light the target up” to ensure the strike by Israeli aircraft was accurate and complete. It was, as all aircraft returned safely, surviving a Syrian air defense barrage.
This would explain Syria’s silence, for it was caught with its hand in the nuclear weapons cookie jar — as well as North Korea’s unsolicited disapproval, for it had been caught playing the shell game. What we don’t know is whether Pyongyang’s plan in sending its equipment to Syria was intended only as a temporary measure, by which Damascus was to safeguard North Korea’s nuclear equipment — or a permanent one, by which Syria would obtain its own nuclear weapons capability.
In view of Syrian complicity in secretly relocating within its borders North Korea’s nuclear capability, the question arises whether Damascus took part in an earlier shell game involving another tyrant. For in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion, the United States failed to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
A CIA report determined no WMD were in Iraq, with the qualification (a fact often ignored by critics opposed to the Iraq invasion on the basis of WMD) that a determination could not be made whether such weapons were transferred to a bordering state. There was, in fact, clear evidence of a great deal of vehicular border-crossing activity from Iraq into Syria in the days prior to the U.S. invasion.
Moreover, in 2004, Syrian journalist and defector Nizar Nayouf reported he knew of three locations in Syria where Saddam had actually buried WMD. (This would be in keeping with Saddam’s known policy of burying military assets in the desert, as he did with 30 Iraqi MiG-25 aircraft just prior to the 2003 invasion.
We owe Israel our gratitude for uncovering the North Korean-Syrian shell game. Just as it did in removing the threat to the West of a nuclear-armed Saddam by attacking and destroying Iraq’s Osirak facility in 1981, Israel has spared the West the threat of a nuclear-armed Syria and hopefully set back the nuclear threat of North Korea.
James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.
Other great work by this author:
Dragnet, Freedom of the Press, The Facts, and the Mainstream News Media