Column: Dispatches From the Edge: Updating Two Stories: Desert Mirage, African Report Card

By Conn Hallinan
Friday January 18, 2008

Dispatches From the Edge is going to start off 2008 by revisiting two stories the column covered in 2007. 


So what was that Sept. 6 Israeli bombing of Syria all about? The official line is that Israel flattened a Syrian nuclear reactor, which may have been designed by the North Koreans, although with all the chaff being thrown up, it hard to tell what really happened (“chaff “is metallic foil used to confuse radar systems). 

Aviation Weekly reports the facility was first spotted by an Israeli Ofek 7 satellite, and Tel Aviv relayed the intelligence to the Bush Administration. Neither the Israelis nor the Americans will say a word in public, but one “U.S. official” told the New York Times, “There wasn’t a lot of debate about the evidence. There was a lot of debate about how to respond to it.” 

But according to an investigation by B. Michael on the Jewish website, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad likely told the truth when he said the raid hit an “unused military building” and blew up “nothing of consequence.” 

First, recently released photos indicate that U.S. intelligence had known about the place since at least 2003, making it far more likely that the United States told the Israelis rather than visa-a-versa. 

Second, the moment people got a chance to look at the photos, the nonsense about its “remote” location began to disassemble. The Dewar az Zawr facility is just over one mile from the major tourist magnet at Halabiya, where rafting trips down the Euphrates are organized. 

Third, as Michael points out, “This ‘reactor’ is not surrounded by any fence. There is no wall there either, no watchtowers, no residential structures, no patrol roads, no anti-aircraft positions, and no barracks.” There is not even a guard post. 

The Israeli explanation for this rather casual approach to security is that the facility was so secret, not even the Syrian Army knew about it, hence the lack of defensive measures. Michael acidly suggests, “this reactor was so secretive that nobody in Syria knew about its existence. Only the Israelis knew.” 

So a case of bad intelligence? Or are some people up to no good?  

Rightwing Israelis used the issue to argue that Syria should have been excluded from the recent Annapolis conference between Israelis and Palestinians. 

U.S. neo-conservatives, like former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, argue that the U.S. should withdraw from the six-party talks with North Korea over disarming that country’s nuclear weapons program because of the charge that North Korea may have helped design the so-called “reactor.” “There’s a growing suspicion that the veil of secrecy about Syria doesn’t have to do so much with intelligence as with protecting the six party talks and the Annapolis conference,” Bolton told the Financial Times. 

The evidence for a “reactor” at Dewar az Zawr is thin. Much has been made of one building close to the Euphrates that is identified as a “pumping station”—water is essential to cool a nuclear reactor—but it doesn’t appear in early images of the facility and neither the Israelis nor the Bush Administration have presented any evidence that the building is a coolant facility.  

“It’s a box on a river,” says Jeffery Lewis, an arms control expert for the New America Foundation. “I am amazed that people can say they know the function just because of its dimensions.” 

The only other evidence is negative: the facility was razed following the bombing, which the U.S. says proves that it was a reactor. Or maybe the Syrians tore down a bombed building? In any case, they have started rebuilding it, same size, same shape, but with a different roof. 

Michaels concludes the attack was all about politics: “A sequence of circular and manipulative intelligence schemes, piles of nonsense premised on tidbits of information, and the exploitation of this entire mess for the sake of political objectives of various leaders and their camps, both here (Israel) and in the United States.”  


This past February, the Bush administration announced the formation of African Command (Africom), the goals of which were “development, health, education, democracy and economic growth.” 

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Teresa Whalen said the initiative was aimed at “promoting security” and helping African nations to overcome “instability that has toppled governments and causes so much pain on the continent.” Confronted with widespread suspicion in the region, Whalen said, “while there are fears that Africom represents a militarization of U.S. foreign policy in Africa …That fear is unfounded.” 

Jump ahead nine months. 


Mogadishu, Somalia (Reuters)—Insurgents dragged the bodies of dead Ethiopian soldiers through the streets of the capital after another flare-up of fighting that killed at least 21 people and sent thousands fleeing the volatile city …The scene recalled the 1993 downing of two United States Black hawk helicopters by Somali militiamen, when dead Americans were dragged through the streets, precipitating American withdrawal and contributing to the end of a United States peacekeeping organization. 


According to Reuters, Ethiopian troops killed more than 60 Somalis in revenge and sent thousands of refugees streaming out of the capital. 

The Ethiopians invaded Somalia to overthrow the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had brought a modicum of peace to the warlord-riven country. The Addis Ababa regime was acting on behalf of Washington, which charged that the ICU was associated with al-Qaeda, although neither country has ever presented evidence for any such connection. The U.S.—which arms Ethiopia to the tune of $500 million a year—fed the Ethiopian Army satellite intelligence, and bombed and shelled supposed ICU insurgents in Southern Somalia, killing more than 70 civilians according to the UN. 

The outcome of such “stabilizing” activities is that Somalia has now passed Darfur as the major humanitarian crisis on the continent. According to the United Nations, malnutrition rates in some areas of Somalia are 19 percent. Darfur’s rate is 13 percent, and the UN considers 15 percent to be the emergency threshold. 

“The situation in Somalia is the worst on the continent,” said the UN’s top official in Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah. 

Eric Laroche, who heads up the UN’s humanitarian services in Somalia, says that conditions were better under the ICU. “It was much more peaceful and much easier for us to work. The Islamists didn’t cause us any problems.” 

Besides actively participating in the invasion of Somalia and initiating the current humanitarian crisis, the United States is also backing Ethiopia’s suppression of insurgents in its southeastern Ogaden region. When human rights groups and the Red Cross protested Addis Ababa sealing off aid supplies going to the vast desert area, the Bush administration backed up the Ethiopians. 

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer said the embargo was justified, because the rebels of the Ogadan National Liberation Front (ONLF) were “trying to get contraband in through those trade routes. Weapons, arms trafficking is taking place with the same trucks bringing in rice.” 

Western aid agencies deny this is the case. 

The result of the embargo, according to the UN, is that 21 percent of Ogaden children are malnourished, an even worse situation than in Somalia.  

The United States is also conducting military maneuvers with 10 countries that border the Sahara, and is expanding naval operations in the Gulf of Guinea, which harbors the vast Bulk of the continent’s oil reserves.  

West Africa currently provides 15 percent of the oil imported to the United States, a figure that will rise to 25 percent by 2015. 

The U.S. is also pouring arms into the region. According to Forecast International, Africa’s “changing geopolitical environments” and “hydrocarbon-derived wealth,” creates “major opportunities for western defense enterprises.” 

The report’s author, Matthew Richie, says, “There is a collection of African nations demonstrating procurement characteristics reminiscent of the Middle East decades ago.” So far, Algeria, Libya and Nigeria are the major buyers. 

And who is selling those arms? Between 1990 and 2006, the United States and European share of that market rose from 34 to 37 percent.