In the aftermath of the September 6 Israeli air strike in northeast Syria, there has been much speculation about the target. Neither the Israelis nor the Syrians are talking about what was hit, only that there was a strike.
Whatever the target was, the Israelis considered it of such importance that it mounted a long-range raid to attack it. The area of the strike, Dayr az-Zawr, is fairly remote, yet on the Euphrates River, providing some infrastructure to support a large industrial facility.
What target would be of such significance? The speculation is that there were some nuclear-related materials from North Korea. The North Koreans have been in Syria since the 1970's. When I was the air attaché in Damascus in the early to mid 1990's, the North Koreans supplied Scud C ballistic missiles and mobile launchers. The North Korean military attaché spoke fair Arabic, so we chatted on occasion – he never denied that his country was in the missile export business. Not a bad guy, just on the wrong side. He was killed in car accident in Lebanon - against direction from the Defense Intelligence Agency, we American attachés attended the funeral, only to be lambasted by his widow for being "imperialists."
I was asked if I believed the target could have been a chemical weapons (CW) production facility. I doubt Israel would go all the way to Dayr az-Zawr to hit a CW facility – the Syrians have had indigenously-produced GB/sarin and VX nerve agents for years. We also believe they have CW warheads for their SS-21, Scud C and Scud D missiles. In 2003, the Central Intelligence Agency prepared a report for Congress (Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions) that detailed Syria’s possession of the chemical munitions.
The Israelis know about Syria’s chemical warfare capabilities and have chosen to accept them. It has been Syria's poor man's mutual assured destruction weapon - if they launch a first-strike CW attack against Israel, they know what is coming back at them. It does, they believe, provide a deterrent against a major Israeli attack on Syria - a properly delivered GB or VX warhead over Tel Aviv could kill 8000 people (based on computer modeling).
I don’t know what the target was, but it had to be more than another CW facility. To me, that means something more menacing, like a nuclear facility.