Israel's 2007 decision to destroy the nuclear reactor the Syrian regime was clandestinely building at al-Kibar, was, at the time, a deeply controversial one. But, as it turned out, Israel's decision to unilaterally strike Syria ended up being nothing short of prescient.
Just a few years later, huge swaths of Syrian territory – including the particular patch of land that had once housed the Assad regime's embryonic nuclear effort – had fallen under the sway of the Islamic State terrorist group. Had Syria been allowed to forge ahead with its nuclear work, we could well have seen the world's most dangerous extremists get their hands on the world's most dangerous weapons.
Thankfully, they did not. As Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Yaakov Katz meticulously details in his new book, Shadow Strike: Inside Israel's Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power, the government of Prime minister Ehud Olmert successfully unraveled the various intelligence threads to determine that – contrary to conventional wisdom – the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad had embarked on a quest for nuclear weapons. Katz then documents the difficult decision-making process that accompanied the revelation, culminating in Olmert's fateful decision to unilaterally strike Syria – despite significant disapproval from Washington.
Katz's account is at once authoritative and deeply engaging. Shadow Strike provides readers with a front-row seat to the cutthroat world of Israeli politics (where Olmert's domestic rivals hoped he might make a misstep so they could claim the political advantage). It likewise underscores the central role that coordination with its chief strategic partner, the United States, plays in virtually all of Israel's decision-making processes. It does all of the above in quick, accessible and compelling prose that promises to make Shadow Strike an essential addition to any serious collection on contemporary Israeli statecraft.
But it is also much more. Perhaps the book's biggest contribution is its emphasis on the lessons underscored by Israel's strike on the Syrian nuclear program.
The first has to do with the imperfect nature of national intelligence. Israel's discovery of Syria's clandestine nuclear work flew in the face of the established consensus then being propounded by America's assorted intelligence agencies, which had failed to discern the Assad regime's attempts at atomic work. In turn, the strength of the unique data amassed by Israel drove it to act unilaterally against the Syrian program – while an earlier intelligence failure, the botched assessment of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, prompted the George W. Bush administration to watch from the sidelines. Intelligence, in other words, can help inform and empower policy if properly harnessed. But when improperly used, it can serve as a deterrent to action.
The second lesson deals with the nature of contemporary proliferation. As Shadow Strike details, Syria's nuclear effort was not a homegrown venture; rather, it was a national project illicitly aided by the North Korean regime in contravention to various international understandings. Moreover, Pyongyang's nuclear partnership with Syria mirrored the DPRK's cooperation with the Iranian regime on ballistic missiles (and possibly on nuclear weapons as well). That should serve as a cautionary tale for the Trump administration, which is still holding out hope for some sort of diplomatic détente with the DPRK. Quite simply, North Korea's rogue regime has long profited from strategically proliferating sensitive technologies – and, chances are, is still doing so.
Most of all, however, Shadow Strike is a chronicle of Israeli strategic autonomy. By now, the Jewish state has become accustomed to taking unilateral steps to protect its own security – and, more often than not, that of the broader international community as well. Most of the time, it receives little credit and much condemnation for its actions. Nonetheless, the past several years of strife in the Middle East have made abundantly clear that a nuclear-armed Syria (or, worse, an Islamic State equipped with nuclear weapons) would have been nothing short of a strategic nightmare. That neither eventuality came to pass is a testament to Israel's foresight and penchant for risk-taking.
For that, the international community owes Israel an enormous debt of gratitude. Thanks to Katz, we know just how large.