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Who's doing what to whom in Syria?

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Robin Lustig | 10:32 UK time, Friday, 25 April 2008

It's always a good rule of thumb in the Middle East to assume that nothing is quite what it seems. And I definitely think the rule applies now, after the US reports of an apparent Syrian attempt to build a nuclear reactor.

If you want to take it all at face value, it's simple enough: The North Koreans were helping Syria build it; the Israelis bombed it; the US has revealed it. The White House says that the reactor was ''a dangerous and potentially destabilizing development for the world.''

But of course it's not simple at all. First, who says it was a nuclear reactor? Well, the anonymous officials who've been briefing reporters in Washington say the intelligence people have "high confidence" that it was. But they have only "medium confidence" that the North Koreans were involved in building it, and "low confidence" that any plutonium that might one day have been produced was meant for the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

Second, why is all this coming out now? At the time of the Israeli bombing (sorry, that should be "alleged Israeli bombing", since Israel categorically refuses to acknowledge that it had anything to do with whatever it was that happened), the US didn't want to say much at all. The bombing itself didn't make many headlines at the time: in this country it came at the height of the "Did the McCanns murder their daughter?" hysteria, as I pointed out in my newsletter on 14 September.

There are plenty of explanations, or, if you prefer, conspiracy theories. One, that the US is focusing on the North Korea connection because it wants to put pressure on the North Koreans to deliver on their de-nuclearisation commitments. Two, that the US wants to slow down any progress towards a Syria-Israel deal, because it still regards Syria as a dangerously destablising influence in the region. (It backs Hamas in Gaza and Hizbollah in Lebanon, neither of which the US approves of.)

But never forget that Israel and Syria, despite all the rhetoric, have a grudging respect for each other. There are constant behind-the-scenes talks going on at various levels, and one day, when each of them judges that it's in their interests to do a deal, they'll do one. For now, the problem seems to be that the Israelis want the talks process to stay secret, but the Syrians want it out in the open with the Americans included.

Oh, and on the subject of aerial photographs of military installations in the middle of the desert. We have been here before, haven't we? We saw the pictures, we even heard the intercepted phone conversations, when then secretary of state Colin Powell addressed the UN Security Council before the invasion of Iraq. They weren't quite what they seemed then - but of course being wrong once doesn't necessarily mean you're wrong a second time.

It just means that we have to be cautious. Remember the rule of thumb.


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