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Syria's Area 51

By September 14, 2007

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Area 51 in Nevada, lesser known as Groom Lake, is the most secret military installation in the United States. It's surrounded by the Nevada Test Site, where the Pentagon has exploded 928 nuclear bombs (the testing kind), and about 1,000 square miles of restricted air space. Naturally, it's also Ground Zero for UFO buffs and conspiracy theorists who think the United States is either hiding extraterrestrials there or developing the ultimate secret weapon (as if nukes aren't bad enough).

It looks like Syria now has its own Area 51, and Israel took a peek the other day--and bombed it.

That's not the strange part of the story. Israel and Syria have been talking war for the last few weeks, building up forces on both sides of their borders, and Israel's been known to bomb the occasional Syrian target just to remind its most veteran enemy state that international borders are only suggestions for an Israeli air force in retaliatory mood. (Israeli jets have been violating Lebanese air space routinely for decades.)

No, this is the strange part of the story: Both Israel and Syria did their best to make believe last week's raid either didn't happen or was a mistake, maybe like that time in 1966 when an American B-52 dropped four hydrogen bombs on the poor Spanish fishing village of Palomares after the bomber collided with a refueling tanker. (Needless to say, those nukes didn't explode.) If this sounds like a daytime TV imitation of "Dr. Strangelove" on a second-rate Arab or Israeli cable channel, that's because it might as well be, the way Syrians and Israelis are prattling on about the affair. Israel officially denies the raid took place, but not so much that it wouldn't leak the story to The New York Times and CNN.

Then it gets messy. As the Israeli leak would have it, the raid went after a nuclear plant Syria may be building with North Korean assistance. Wasn't Korean News, the North Korean news agency, just about the only nation's mouthpiece that condemned the raid other than Syria and Iran? But North Korea's been trying to play nice lately, and shipping anything that glows from North Korea to Syria would be tricky: It would have to make it past the U.S. Sixth Fleet's ships in the Mediterranean, or else overland, through Turkey (not a chance) or Iraq (even less likely). So maybe the raid went after a cache of arms for Hezbollah. But in northern Syria, on the border with Turkey, the furthest point north from where Hezbollah happens to be in Lebanon, just across Syria's central-western border with Lebanon? Even more dubious.

Maybe that's why even Syria downplayed the raid after initially huffing verbal scuds: The two sides may not yet be ready to deal over Israel's occupation of the Golan, or Syria's interference in Lebanon on behalf of Hezbollah and against the central government. The two sides may be even less ready to wage war. So they're settling for semi-make-believe raids in the Syrian desert and letting conspiracy theorists have their September back-to-school fling. It's a dangerous game, but still safer than the real thing.

Can Syria even afford a war right now with its aging military equipment and streets drenched in Iraqi refugees? Have a look at my profile of Syria for quick answers.

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