The media has gone nuclear about Syria

The most striking element of Israel’s September 6 raid on Syrian territory was the aggressor’s most unusual behavior, namely a reticence to brag about yet another illegal assault, to the point of imposing military censorship on media coverage. This after an equally unusual and totally spontaneous Syrian disclosure that a raid had in fact taken place, making the event even more peculiar. The normal, vague Syrian response to Israeli assaults had until then stopped, meekly and indefinitely, at reserving the right to retaliate.

By the time Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, some ten days later, declared having "a good deal of respect for the Syrian leader and for Syrian policy"–an unexpected sentiment not echoed by Israel’s actions –there had been mysterious American leaks about alleged Syrian nuclear facilities or nuclear shipments and a growing array of theories about what had happened, adding much speculation but little actual information. When Syria suddenly cleaned up the site of the raid, a month later, most reports in the media and in the blogosphere triumphantly took this as an indication of Syria’s "guilt."

Clearly, the latter’s action did not significantly improve odds that the benefit of the doubt would be granted–even to the actual victim of aggression–especially as other Syrian sites attacked by Israel (such as the Golan town of Quneitra, systematically destroyed before Israel was forced to withdraw following the disengagement agreement in 1974) have been left intact in their desolation for decades, forced witnesses testifying about the violence of the enemy.

But no serious analyst or nuclear expert, not even hysterical fear mongers, can actually back up claims that Syria in its present condition could truly pose a threat to the security of Israel. As things stand, it is difficult to believe that Syria could develop into even a significant opponent to Israel, and as repeated reports by respected professionals in the field have stated, Syria’s nuclear ambitions, if any, are modest, its capacities are non-existent and its potential for development in such matters is practically nil. No matter how it is presented, the nuclear linkage between Syria and North Korea or Iran has no basis.

Unfortunately, mainstream media’s Pavlovian conditioning has ensured that the Bush administration’s bait about supposed weapons of mass destruction, yet again, was taken unconditionally. Reliable villains don’t come easy, and Syria has not done itself any favors in its clumsy handling of the affair. As usual, the official response was completely inadequate in comparison to the media-savvy exposes of both the attackers and the accusers; Syrian ministers with clearly unrelated portfolios and limited persuasive talents led the battle, while other officials gave contradicting information.

This in no way excuses the sloppy reporting and the rumors disguised as truth that covered the pages of newspapers and websites. In fact, most reports only exercised the necessary journalistic caution when covering Syria’s initial announcement that it had been attacked, and that its air defense had challenged the Israeli planes and chased them out; until Israel actually confirmed the raid, making headline news, Syrian statements were described as alleged, claimed, supposed–anything but believable.

But even while doubting Syria’s declarations, many reports, probably inadvertently, gave credibility to the argument of a nuclear Syria. Indeed, analysis seemed to accept the "normalcy" of the rumor that a nuclear facility had been hit, not only because it served the purpose of portraying Syria as a problem-maker in cahoots with even more undesirable regimes in the most dangerous of activities, but also because it elaborated on the reasons why Syria would want, or need, such capacities. As a deterrent against an occupying enemy whose own 200 plus nuclear warheads loom menacingly near, the only adequate measure is some of the same.

But while these well-presented arguments about Syrian needs by foreign (and generally anti-Syrian) media made perfect sense, they neglected to dig into the mountain of facts already covered by numerous proliferation reports, including details about the countries (mostly Western powers) that have assisted Syria and in which Syrian scientists have trained, and the description of the kind of research and production of which Syria is capable (mainly isotopes for medical and agricultural applications).

Such details, and the fact that unlike Israel, Syria is a signatory to the Non Nuclear Proliferation Treaty since 1969, do not support the scaremongering and the political agenda behind it. The events and the uncharacteristic behavior following the attack seem to suggest that both Syria and Israel have something to hide, and that they were surprised by each other’s game as it was being divulged. For some analysts, repercussions of this raid are still being felt, from Annapolis to Beirut; for others still, the raid gave a new perspective on the preposterous plans for Tehran.

But unless–or rather, given Baghdad’s recent experience, even if–the current American secretary of state can produce a vial of evidence to hold up during a session of the Security Council, it is incumbent on the media to exercise responsibility and to simply report the fact that the Israeli raid on Syria remains a mystery.