Syrian President Bashar Assad has never admitted that he tried to build a nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007. He built it not far from Damascus, in the desert region of Deir ez-Zor. He concealed the whole affair from Syria’s top brass, apart from a few individuals who were in on the secret.

When Israeli Air Force planes destroyed the nuclear reactor, Assad confirmed that “an army building under construction” had been destroyed. He never said anything more than that, and he never admitted that he was involved in building a nuclear reactor.

This morning, the Arab world woke up to a barrage of detailed Israeli media reports in Israel, in which Israel confirmed that it had blown up the nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zor in 2007.

In the meantime, the Arab media reposted quotes from Israeli reports. The Israeli admission of the attack took the Arab countries by surprise. Even though the attack has been an open secret for the past 10 years, Israel never took responsibility for destroying the nuclear reactor until now.

Syria is maintaining a resounding silence, and it is doubtful that it will react to any of these reports at all.

In 2007, Israel followed a vague policy of not humiliating Assad or pushing him toward a military reaction. Assad used this Israeli “vagueness” to “keep his dignity,” and he indeed never responded militarily.

There is no doubt that today’s announcements have greatly confounded the Syrian regime and its leader. This is especially the case after the Syrian army’s victory in the civil war, depicted in part by Assad’s victory visit to Ghouta al-Sharqiya that was documented in the media on March 18.

President Bashar Assad in Ghouta on March 18, 2018

Syrian President Bashar Assad in Ghouta on March 18, 2018 (Syrian President’s Office)

What does the Arab media think of Israel’s admission?

Arab commentators define the Israeli admission of the attack on the nuclear reactor in Syria as “poking a finger in Bashar Assad’s eye.”

Here’s how some of them perceive the timing of the lengthy press reports in Israel:

  1. The exact timing of the admission was designed to indicate to Iran and Syria that Israel is not prepared to put up with the establishment of an Iranian presence in Syria, the purpose of which is to build factories to produce guided missiles. Israel has great military strength, as seen from the attack on the Syrian reactor in 2007, and it won’t hesitate to use this might to protect itself and destroy the Iranian army installations in Syria that are endangering its security.
  2. This is an Israeli message to U.S. President Donald Trump to encourage him to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran in the near future and consider a military option against the Iranian nuclear installations.

It is not difficult to imagine what Assad felt this morning when he saw the wave of media coverage in Israel, which loudly resonated through the Arab media. The Israeli reports struck at Syria’s national pride, and it is reasonable to assume that even today, Assad will not admit that he was the one who started building the nuclear reactor. Even if the issue is mentioned in Syria, the media reports in Israel will be described as false, and attempts will be made to play up Syrian military achievements, such as successfully bringing down an Israeli fighter plane when it attacked Syrian targets.

Was it right or wise to breach Israel’s ambiguous policy on this issue? Would it only encourage the Syrians to make even more dangerous moves against Israel in order to “restore national dignity?”

We will only receive answers to these questions over time.

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.