Eight days ago, the Syrian government announced that Israeli military jets had been spotted flying through Syrian airspace. The Syrians said the jets had been fired upon and had fled. The Israelis said nothing at all.
Ever since, the region and its media have been engaged in a frenzy of speculation as to what really happened. As soon as news of the reported incident broke, the Israeli government imposed a complete media blackout.
That blackout has muzzled Israeli journalists who have been frustrated by the silence of their usually talkative defense sources. In one bulletin an Israeli radio announcer sarcastically told his audience to log onto the Web site of a government-sponsored Syrian newspaper to find out what really happened.
In the strange atmosphere that has followed last week's incident, the region's bloggers have been working overtime to fill the void. What seems clear is that something important did happen, and far from the Israeli mission being limited to probing, or reconnaissance, the consensus view is that the Israelis flew a mission that had a real target.
This speculation has been supported by a number of anonymous defense sources in the United States. One such source is quoted in The New York Times saying, "The strike I can confirm, the target, I can't."
Judging by the extraordinary secrecy attached to the target, it was highly sensitive. Another unnamed U.S. source said the Israeli strike "left a big hole in the desert." Meanwhile the Syrians are sticking to their story that the Israelis turned and ran once they were detected. Syrian U.N. ambassador Bashar al Ja'afari told reporters: "There was no target. They dropped their munitions. They were running away."
Here are the leading theories about the target, in no particular order of credibility or importance:
The Israelis, presumably with U.S. knowledge and backing, targeted a transfer of weapons destined for the Lebanese group Hezbollah. This trafficking of weapons has long been an issue for the Israelis, and now is in direct contravention of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which was drawn up at the end of last year's conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Israeli intelligence has been warning that Hezbollah is trying to rearm and the usual suspects are Syria and Iran.
Syrian ballistic missiles were the target. Syria has a lot of missiles within range of Israel's main population centers. In recent years, according to Western intelligence sources, they have been trying to improve and upgrade with the help of the North Koreans and others. Last summer's conflict between Israel and Hezbollah showed that Israel's conventional military superiority can be neutralized by an opponent who can strike deep inside Israel's home front. Syria certainly has that capability and if it is radically improved that would be cause for Israeli concern.
The strike targeted nonconventional weapons facilities. Syria is known to have chemical weapons capability and its own production plants. With an upgrade in Syria's missile arsenal, this capability becomes a big worry for the Israelis. If some kind of intelligence warning indicated the Syrians have reached a higher level in this area, the Israelis might have decided to act.
The second unconventional area is, of course, the nuclear one. A New York Times story this week suggested with the help of some U.S. defense and diplomatic sources that the strike targeted an emerging nuclear program. Again, the North Koreans are implicated with former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton stoking the fires with bold claims about North Korean technology transfers to the Syrians. "It is legitimate to ask questions about whether that cooperation extends on the nuclear side," he told The New York Times.
Despite the recent improvement in U.S.-North Korean relations over the nuclear issue and the communist state's declared intention to abandon its enrichment program, one unnamed administration official, quoted in the Times, expressed a word of caution. "The Israelis think North Korea is selling to Iran and Syria what little they have left."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in an interview with Fox News declined to comment on the supposed airstrike, but did add fuel to the fires of speculation by repeating the administration's policy of preventing what she called "the world's most dangerous people from having the world's most dangerous weapons."
ABC News consultant and former U.S. Ambassador to Korea, Donald Gregg believes that the North Koreans could be selling weapons but is highly skeptical of the idea that they would be touting nuclear technology, "North Korea has sold short-range missiles to a number of countries, and may well have sold some to Syria."
But, Gregg adds, "The idea that North Korea would jeopardize the progress it is currently making with the United States by becoming involved in nuclear-related issues in the most volatile region of the world beggars belief, as the establishment of normal relations with the US has been a major objective of North Korea since the collapse of the USSR."
If the Israelis thought the Syrians were developing nuclear ambitions, many analysts think they would certainly consider a preemptive strike, as they did against the Iraqi nuclear program of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s.
It is interesting to note that the only countries to have launched vehement rhetorical attacks against the Israeli action have been Iran and North Korea, whose foreign ministry in an official statement accused Israel of a "dangerous provocation little short of wantonly violating the sovereignty of Syria and seriously harassing the regional peace."
Syria's Arab neighbors have been strangely quiet and have refused to be drawn into their usual criticism of Israel's military adventures. Do their governments know something about the target we don't?
Whatever happened, the incident has certainly raised tension between the two countries. They are already in a state of war after the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights at the end of the Six Day War in 1967. The tension has been growing all year with both sides conducting a confusing dual campaign of military exercises and talk of peace negotiations.
The chance of them sitting down to talk peace now seems more remote than ever. The Syrians have complained to the U.N. Security Council, but are also hinting at other responses.
"Our response has not yet come," Ja'afari told BBC Arabic Service, accusing Israel of "seeking military escalation." Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad added that his country retains "the means to respond in ways that will preserve its position of power."
Meanwhile, most diplomatic sources suggest neither side wishes to let this incident flare into a full-blown conflict. The Israelis have recently stopped potentially provocative military exercises on the Golan Heights, and Western intelligence sources have detected no mobilization of Syrian forces since the incident.
In the absence of official statements from the Israelis, the frenzy of speculation, however, looks set to continue, with little prospect of the two sides sitting down to talk peace.