National Security

The General's Gambit

Petraeus tried to warn Assad about the foreign fighters in Iraq. Now they're coming for him.

On Jan. 8, 2008, Gen. David Petraeus's face was beamed onto a screen in the White House for a videoconference with President George W. Bush. The Iraq surge was beginning to wind down, and the general had an unusual proposal for the commander in chief.

"I've received three messages from Bashar al-Assad via Iraqi ministers stating that he'd like to meet," Petraeus told the president, according to a classified script for the presentation. "Stan McChrystal and I still want to go to Damascus to talk AQI only with Bashar al-Assad and solicit his help in stemming the flow of foreign fighters and taking on known AQ personalities who work in Syria."

AQI was al Qaeda in Iraq, the global terrorist group's Iraqi franchise, and Petraeus thought that if he and McChrystal, then the three-star commander of the secret special-operations forces in the region, confronted Assad, they just might convince him to curb the flow of Arab fighters traveling through Syria to join al Qaeda's campaign of suicide bombings in Iraq. The volunteers were Sunni extremists, after all, and their presence might eventually pose a threat to Assad, who ruled Syria with an iron hand with the help of a small elite drawn from the minority Alawite sect.

The point was underscored by U.S. intelligence assessments, which noted that the route the would-be jihadists took to the war was also their way out. Foreign fighters "who gained operational experience while fighting in Iraq return to their source countries through Syria," one such report observed. "These experienced fighters returning from jihad pose a threat to the Syrian regime. Although Syria currently is mainly a transit point for AQI, Syria will be an AQI target in the future. AQI ultimately intends to conduct attacks in Syria."

Compounding the problem, terrorist networks inside Syria were also overseeing the stream of fighters to Iraq with the knowledge and, U.S. military officers believed, support of Syrian intelligence, which hoped to direct the energies of the jihadists to Syria's neighbor to the east and bog down the Americans.

Petraeus and McChrystal were among the generals Bush trusted the most, but the president deflected the request. "Stay patient," he replied, according to notes of the meeting, and then changed the subject to troop levels. Petraeus never made the trip.

Today, al Qaeda in Iraq has trained its sights on Assad, just as the intelligence reports predicted, becoming a small but deadly part of the resistance in an escalating civil war that has killed more than 20,000 people over the past year and a half. Perhaps the only thing that U.S. officials and Assad might agree on at this point is that al Qaeda should not have a foothold in the new Syria.

Abu Ghadiya

Although there were several networks that provided weapons, cash, and forged passports to al Qaeda's recruits in Syria, by far the largest was run by a figure who went by the nom de guerre Abu Ghadiya. Abu Ghadiya was born into a family of smugglers, and his real name was Badran Turki al-Mazidih. According to the profile drawn by the U.S. intelligence community, he was in his late 20s, with long black hair, a scar on his inner left calf, and a silver ring inset with a black stone that he wore on his left hand.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Abu Ghadiya was put in charge of funneling explosives and volunteers to al Qaeda in Iraq through Syria. Most of the al Qaeda recruits who made their way to Iraq did so on commercial flights that landed at Damascus International Airport. In 2007, foreign fighters were entering Iraq at an alarming rate, sometimes more than 100 per month, the vast majority through Syria.

"Once in Syria they seek accommodations in hotels typically located near large markets or mosques frequented by foreigners, allowing [them] to blend into the general population," one classified military report noted. "Within a few days facilitators contact the recruits and escort them to safehouses where they await onward movement into Iraq. The safehouses often are clustered in neighborhoods in Damascus and Aleppo, but also are in border towns such as Abu Kamal and Qamishli." Al Qaeda fighters who had been wounded in Iraq, it added, sometimes "received treatment at al-Nur Hospital in Damascus."

According to U.S. intelligence, Abu Ghadiya split his time between southeastern Damascus, the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor, and Abu Kamal, a Euphrates River town near the border with Iraq's Anbar province. Only occasionally would he venture inside Iraq -- all of which posed a challenge for McChrystal's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) based at Balad Air Base north of Baghdad.

McChrystal believed that neutralizing Abu Ghadiya was a high priority, but his commandos could not cross the border into Syria without a presidential finding and the administrative cover of the CIA. They could only pick away at the foreign-fighter network once it crossed into Iraq. McChrystal's campaign against Abu Ghadiya's subordinates, called Operation Daytona, occasionally met with major successes. In 2007, for instance, McChrystal's troops killed Abu Muthenna, who served under Abu Ghadiya as al Qaeda in Iraq's "border emir," an action that prompted Abu Ghadiya's own brother-in-law to step into the post as a replacement.

During the raid, at a site code-named "Objective Massey," near Sinjar, an Iraqi town near the Syrian border, JSOC commandos discovered a 5-terabyte trove of documents that sharpened the military's understanding of who exactly was coming across the border.

The personnel records, some of which were later publicly released, revealed that over the previous year, 90 percent of the fighters entering Iraq had done so through Syria. They also confirmed that Syria's military intelligence arm, led by Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, was well aware of Abu Ghadiya's network. Some foreign-fighter "facilitators" who had been caught by Syrian intelligence had been released and "continue facilitation activities," a military briefing on the Objective Massey documents reported. "Intelligence reports suggest [Syrian] authorities quite likely infiltrated multiple networks, most notably the Abu Ghadiyah network, to monitor threats to Syrian interests," another document added a few months later.

Some U.S. officials were fed up with Syria's tolerance of Abu Ghadiya's presence and were pressing for action. At one point, Elliott Abrams, then the senior National Security Council (NSC) aide for Middle East policy, even suggested that the United States consider some form of covert or military action to temporarily halt flights into Damascus International Airport and send a signal that the foreign-fighter flow had to be stopped.

"I thought there were many possible ways to do it," Abrams recalled in an interview. "At one end of the spectrum was some military action, but I thought there were other ways too, from taking out the radar to taking down the computers through something covert. I thought we would only need to do it once, even briefly, to deliver the message to Assad that we would not tolerate him using the airport to ferry every jihadi in the world into Iraq." But Gen. John Abizaid, then head of Central Command, opposed the idea, and it was dropped.

Petraeus's pitch

After Petraeus was named as the top Iraq commander in 2007, he and Ambassador Ryan Crocker commissioned a wide-ranging internal review of military, economic, and diplomatic efforts by a "Joint Strategic Assessment Team." The team was led by Army Col. H.R. McMaster and veteran diplomat David Pearce, and it included Robert Ford, the future ambassador to Syria.

The U.S. ambassadorial post in Damascus had been vacant since the Bush administration pulled out Ambassador Margaret Scobey in 2005 to protest what it was convinced was Syria's involvement in the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Now, the review suggested a several-step diplomatic plan for how to reduce the foreign-fighter flow and engage Syria. "Failure to engage/leverage Syria deprives us of opportunity to create a wedge between Syria and Iran," a briefing on the report noted. "Lack of contact also removes an instrument of influence in the effort to change Syria's national interest calculations regarding support for former regime elements/insurgents."

According to the plan, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would start the ball rolling by meeting with the Syrian foreign minister at a conference in Egypt in May. Other meetings between U.S. and Syrian diplomats in Europe might follow, with military briefers in attendance to provide evidence on the foreign-fighter problem. If the Syrians began to put the squeeze on al Qaeda fighters, Rice would declare at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September that the United States would be sending back its ambassador. As an incentive, the United States would try to "leverage" Syrian interest in revenue it might derive if a crude oil pipeline from Kirkuk in Iraq to the Syrian port of Baniyas were restored. Rice met with her Syrian counterpart in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. But the deal the assessment team hoped for on foreign fighters never materialized.

Then, in late 2007, Assad passed a request for a meeting with Petraeus through an Iraqi minister, the first of several he would make. Petraeus was not naive about Assad; he wanted to take the Syrian leader up on the offer, fly to Damascus, and confront him with the fact that the United States knew about the foreign-fighter networks and his regime's support for them.

According to an official familiar with Petraeus's thinking at the time, the general planned to ask Assad whether allowing "poisonous snakes" to nest in his backyard might not backfire. Driving the point home, one intelligence report noted that Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, al Qaeda's figurehead Iraqi leader, had "singled out Syria as an 'apostate regime'" and had criticized Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, for working with "the butcher and traitor, Hafez al-Assad," Bashar al-Assad's father.

McChrystal, whom Petraeus wanted to take along, supported the plan. Although Assad appeared to be calculating that supporting the likes of Abu Ghadiya was in his short-term interest, he might revaluate the situation as JSOC and the rest of the U.S. military continued to rack up success after success against al Qaeda in Iraq. McChrystal was also inclined to the pragmatic view that trying to talk sense to an adversary was more productive than shunning him and that it was worth a try because nobody else in the U.S. government seemed willing to take on the mission. (Petraeus and McChrystal declined to comment for this article.)

In October, Petraeus began raising the prospect of traveling to Syria. In late October, he pitched the idea to Adm. William Fallon, then head of Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East, and to the White House's war czar, Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute. "I also told him [Lute] -- as I recently told Fox Fallon -- that I would like to travel to Damascus to discuss AQI and foreign fighter network issues with appropriate authorities there -- and by virtue of my position in Iraq, could refuse discussions of any other topics (such as the Golan Heights, etc.)," he wrote in a classified letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "I realize there's a reluctance to engage with Syria until we have the bigger policy issues figured out; however, I fear that such thinking will preclude an opportunity to build on the progress we've been making against AQI."

For the next few months, Petraeus made his case to his superiors every four to six weeks like clockwork. "The further we get our hands around the throats of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the more I feel it is time for a brief visit by me and Stan McChrystal to Syria to ask for their help on stemming the flow of foreign fighters and taking on known AQ personalities who sometimes use Syrian soil," he wrote in a classified report to Gates at the beginning of January 2008, just before he broached the trip to Bush in the Jan. 8 videoconference. As Petraeus saw it, if the United States was going to be "all-in" in securing Iraq, that meant taking on diplomacy with Syria as well.

Stiff-armed

The White House, however, was not anxious for Petraeus to make the trip. Bush and his top aides were trying to isolate the regime. The isolation was not total: The Bush administration invited Syria to the November 2007 Annapolis conference on the Middle East (Syria sent its deputy foreign minister). The Bush administration, however, was determined to avoid anything that looked like "strategic engagement," a former senior Bush administration official said, until the Assad regime began to change its "bad behavior."

A high-profile visit from two senior U.S. generals, Bush aides thought, would undermine that policy and had little chance of success. In a classified June 2007 memo to Bush, Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security advisor, had noted that the United States had intelligence that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had told his Iranian counterpart that their goal should be "the defeat of the United States." Buttressing this point, Hadley wrote in his memo that the CIA's assessment was that the Assad regime had convinced itself that the United States needed Syria more than Syria needed the United States.

"We had all the sanctions we could pile on unilaterally, and we had a policy of isolating Assad -- and it was working," Abrams recalled. "For a long while, the EU foreign ministers stopped visiting Damascus. We were getting more European support because it was obvious that he was shipping arms to Hezbollah, continuing to kill Lebanese leaders, and making Syria the key entry point for jihadis going into Iraq. Petraeus kept saying he wanted to visit Damascus and talk to Assad, but it seemed obvious to me that would destroy the whole isolation policy. I delayed it to the extent I could at my level, but he kept pushing, month after month; he genuinely thought his visit would turn things around. Finally his request hit the president's desk, and the president summarily dismissed the idea."

After Petraeus was rebuffed in the January 2008 videoconference with Bush, the general joked about the rejection in a morning briefing with his staff. "Some woman kicked him under the table," he quipped, implying that Rice had encouraged Bush to turn down the suggestion.

"I have offered to go to Damascus, but the last time I said that I was told to go sit under a tree until the thought passed," Petraeus told his staff six months later. "Maybe it's time to suggest it again."

Petraeus was not the only one who was rebuffed. After Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with Assad over the summer of 2007, Bush discussed the meeting with him in a videoconference. When Maliki suggested that Assad was open to engagement with the United States, the president shut him down. "Actions speak louder than words," he responded.

Going kinetic

By early 2008, al Qaeda in Iraq was losing steam, hounded by U.S. surge troops, by McChrystal's commandos, and by the "Sons of Iraq" who had emerged as part of the tribal Awakening movement. But Abu Ghadiya was getting bolder. In January, intelligence reports noted that the al Qaeda leader was seeking "100 American military uniforms." The reports suggested that Abu Ghadiya was interested in expanding beyond logistics and smuggling to planning attacks -- possibly false-flag attacks like the one that had killed five U.S. soldiers in Karbala in 2007 when Shiite militia fighters used American-style uniforms to great effect. Other intelligence suggested that with Iraq quieting down, Abu Ghadiya was developing links to al Qaeda's small, underground contingent in Lebanon.

By March, the NSC was deliberating over whether to finally "go kinetic" against Abu Ghadiya inside Syria with a joint JSOC and CIA raid or Predator drone strike. The need for action of some sort was drummed home in early May, when al Qaeda fighters crossed from Syria for a deadly raid on an Iraqi police checkpoint just across the border. "Compelling evidence suggests that Abu Ghadiyah, who runs the largest AQ foreign fighter network in Syria, was behind the murder of the Iraqi police officers," Petraeus wrote to Gates of the attack. "The operation could not have been carried out without the acquiescence of Syrian officials at some level."

The Americans pondered a number of options. One approach was to have Abu Ghadiya designated an international terrorist by the U.N. Security Council, but Muammar al-Qaddafi's U.N. representative blocked those efforts. In mid-July, according to notes of one NSC meeting, Israel offered to kill the al Qaeda leader. The previous September, the Israelis had destroyed a Syrian nuclear site in Deir ez-Zor, the same remote province where U.S. intelligence believed Abu Ghadiya spent part of his time. But the Americans did not accept the suggestion.

The next opportunity came a month later, in August, when a Predator strike was planned in Syria. The strike was set for the night of Aug. 13, but Abu Ghadiya moved and it was canceled. That same week, Interpol added Abu Ghadiya to one of its watch lists, and a JSOC team captured one of his deputies in a raid in Qaim, just inside Iraq across the border from Abu Kamal.

Finally, at the end of October, it happened. In a bold daylight mission on Oct. 26 that bystanders caught snippets of on video, MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters flew a JSOC team across the border to a building near Abu Kamal. The commandos entered the building, killed Abu Ghadiya, and took his body back in the helicopters, just as U.S. commandos would nearly three years later after they killed Osama bin Laden. The mission was structured remarkably similarly to the bin Laden raid -- with JSOC commandos working under the CIA.

Because the operation had been run under the CIA rather than under military authority, the Bush administration's response to the raid was sharply different from the fanfare that had surrounded JSOC's capture of Saddam Hussein and killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- deafening silence.

Three weeks after the Abu Kamal raid, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband met with Assad in Damascus. Miliband pressed Assad about his regime's assistance to al Qaeda in Iraq and asked why his government still referred to Sunni insurgents as the "resistance." Assad complained about the American strike. Why, Miliband asked the Syrian dictator, had his government itself not shut down Abu Ghadiya, especially since the United States had passed along intelligence about his activities?

But Assad refused to acknowledge that Abu Ghadiya had been in Syria, even though the U.S. commandos had taken away the al Qaeda leader's body so that they could prove it. Military action, he said, was a violation of Syrian sovereignty and had not been the way to solve the problem -- "even if Abu Ghadiya was there."

Blowback

As the end of Bush's second term approached, his administration's attempt to isolate Syria was set back by disclosures that Israel had been negotiating with Syria through Turkish mediators, while the Europeans started to engage Assad openly. Petraeus, who had been elevated to head Central Command by that time, thought that the White House had softened its resistance to his proposal for a visit and no longer objected to a trip to Damascus, his associates said. Abrams insists that Bush seemed as opposed as ever. But the question was academic -- the trip Petraeus envisioned could not be carried out in the administration's waning days.

Flash-forward four years: As the Syrian crisis has unfolded over the past 18 months, al Qaeda's Iraqi franchise has been active in Syria, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. Although they represent a small portion of the resistance, al Qaeda's fighters have been among the most battle-hardened, and their presence has undoubtedly complicated the Western response to the crisis. Some of the resistance's most effective tactics, like the use of huge buried bombs to keep government forces out of their areas, closely resemble those of al Qaeda in Iraq.

"[T]here is surely not in modern history a more perfect example of blowback than what is happening now in Syria, where Al Qaeda in Iraq's operatives have turned to bite the hands that once fed them," Lt. Col. Joel Rayburn, a former Petraeus aide, wrote in a February article published by the Hoover Institution. "Having terrorized the Iraqis for seven years, the Syrian regime now cynically seeks the world's sympathy as terrorism's victims."

A gnawing question is how a Petraeus visit might have affected the current situation. Some who served in the U.S. command in Baghdad during the Petraeus years believe that if the United States had persuaded Assad to dismantle much of the terrorism network in Syria in 2008, it might have hampered the flow of al Qaeda operatives to Syria over the past year. There would still have been a civil war in Syria, they say, but al Qaeda in Iraq would have had less of a role.

Others believe that al Qaeda would have found a way to take advantage of the chaos in Syria and get into the fight. Still another view is that any crackdown Assad might have mounted against al Qaeda would likely have had only a temporary effect without a broader accommodation between the Bush administration and the Syrian regime that was not to be. As for what Petraeus, now the CIA director, thinks? He's not talking.

Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

National Security

The Entebbe Option

How the U.S. military thinks Israel might strike Iran.

While no one in the Barack Obama administration knows whether Israel will strike Iran's nuclear program, America's war planners are preparing for a wide array of potential Israeli military options -- while also trying to limit the chances of the United States being drawn into a potentially bloody conflict in the Persian Gulf. 

"U.S.-Israeli intelligence sharing on Iran has been extraordinary and unprecedented," a senior Pentagon war planner told me. "But when it comes to actually attacking Iran, what Israel won't tell us is what they plan to do, or how they plan to do it. It's their most closely guarded secret." Israel's refusal to share its plans has persisted despite repeated requests from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a senior Pentagon civilian said.

The result is that, at a time of escalating public debate in both the United States and Israel around the possibility of an armed strike on Iran, high-level Pentagon war planners have had to "fly blind" in sketching out what Israel might do -- and the challenges its actions will pose for the U.S. military.  "What we do is a kind of reverse engineering," the senior planner said. "We take a look at their [Israeli] assets and capabilities, put ourselves in their shoes and ask how we would act if we had what they have. So while we're guessing, we have a pretty good idea of what they can and can't do."

According to several high-level U.S. military and civilian intelligence sources, U.S. Central Command and Pentagon war planners have concluded that there are at least three possible Israeli attack options, including a daring and extremely risky special operations raid on Iran's nuclear facility at Fordow -- an "Iranian Entebbe" they call it, after Israel's 1976 commando rescue of Israeli hostages held in Uganda. In that scenario, Israeli commandos would storm the complex, which houses many of Iran's centrifuges; remove as much enriched uranium as they found or could carry; and plant explosives to destroy the facility on their way out.

Centcom, which oversees U.S. military assets in the Middle East, has been given the lead U.S. role in studying the possible Israeli strike. Over the past year its officers have met several times at Centcom headquarters in Tampa, Florida, and with Fifth Fleet naval officers in Doha, Qatar, to discuss their conclusions, the sources say.  

The military analysis of Israeli war plans has been taking place separate from -- but concurrent with -- the controversy surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence that the United States present Tehran with a "red line," which, if crossed by Iran's nuclear program, would trigger a U.S. military strike. "That's a political question, not a war question," the senior Pentagon war planner said. "It's not in our lane. We're assuming that an Israeli attack could come at any time."

But it's not clear that Israel, even with its vaunted military, can pull off a successful strike: Netanyahu may not simply want the United States on board politically; he may need the United States to join militarily. "All this stuff about 'red lines' and deadlines is just Israel's way of trying to get us to say that when they start shooting, we'll start shooting," retired Admiral Bobby Ray Inman told me. "Bottom line? We can do this and they can't, because we have what the Israelis don't have," retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner said.

One thing is clear: the U.S. military, according to my sources, currently has no interest in a preventive strike. "The idea that we'll attack with Israel is remote, so you can take that off your list of options," former Centcom commander Joe Hoar told me. Nor will the United States join an Israeli attack once it starts, the senior U.S. planner said. "We know there are senior Iranians egging for a fight with us, particularly in their Navy," a retired Centcom officer added. "And we'll give them one if they want one, but we're not going to go piling in simply because the Israelis want us to."

That puts the military shoulder to shoulder with the president. Obama and the military may have clashed on other issues, like the Afghan surge, but when it comes to Iran, they are speaking with one voice: They don't want Iran to get a nuclear weapon, they don't want Israel to start a war over it, and they don't believe an Israeli attack should automatically trigger U.S. intervention. But, if they are to avoid becoming part of Israel's plans, they first need to know what those plans are.

Three high-level U.S. military and intelligence sources have told me that Centcom has identified three options for Israel should it decide to take preventive military action against Iran.

The first and most predictable option calls for a massed Israeli Air Force bombing campaign targeting key Iranian nuclear sites. Such an assault would be coupled with strikes from submarine-launched cruise missiles and Israeli-based medium-range Jericho II and long-range Jericho III missiles, according to a highly placed U.S. military officer. The attack may well be preceded by -- or coupled with -- a coordinated cyber and electronic warfare attack.

But planners for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Centcom have concluded that, because of limits to Israel's military capabilities, such an aerial campaign could not be sustained. "They'll have one shot, one time," the U.S. military officer said. "That's one time out and one time back. And that's it."

While Israel has 125 sophisticated F15I and F16I fighter-bombers, only the roughly 25 F15Is are capable of carrying the bunker-busting GBU-28 guided missile, which has the best chance of destroying Iran's heavily fortified nuclear installations. And even then, each F15I can only carry a single munition.

This force, while lethal, is also modest. The Israeli Air Force would likely have to carefully pick and choose its targets, settling most probably on four: the heavy-water production plant at Arak, the uranium-enrichment centers at Fordow and Natanz, and the uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan, while leaving out the military site at Parchin and the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, which houses Russian technical experts.

The Israeli attack would also likely include the F16Is to knock down Iran's air defense network, or perhaps drop other, less effective, bunker-busting munitions to reinforce the F15I sortie. Some of these F16Is, but not all of them, would be able to refuel from Israel's seven to ten KC-707 tankers.

Even with that, and even with the best of luck (good weather, accurate targeting, sophisticated refueling, near total surprise, precise air-to-air interdiction, a minimum of accidents, and the successful destruction of Iran's anti-aircraft capabilities), senior U.S. military officers say that Israel would only set back Iran's nuclear capability by one to two years at best -- not end it.

Which could be why Netanyahu is so anxious for the Obama administration to say when or if it would join an attack. As Hoar, the former Centcom commander, bluntly put it: "Compared to the United States, Israel doesn't have a military."

Included in the U.S. arsenal is the recently developed Massive Ordnance Penetrator, the GBU-57, which can punch through 200 feet of hardened concrete before detonating its 5,300-pound warhead. The United States, which recently developed the GBU-57, is rumored to have only about 20 in its inventory -- but the Israelis have zero. "There's a good reason for that," Gardiner said. "Only a B-2 bomber can carry the 57." He paused for effect: "You might know this, but it's worth mentioning," he said. "Israel doesn't have any B-2s."

Israel's likely inability to destroy Iran's nuclear capacity in a single stroke, even in a best-case scenario, has led U.S. war planners to speculate about a second, out-of-the-box, and extremely dangerous military option: what they're calling an "Iranian Entebbe."

In this scenario, the Israelis would forego a massed air attack and instead mount a high-risk but high-payoff commando raid that would land an elite Sayeret Matkal (special forces) unit outside of Iran's enrichment facility at Fordow, near Qom. The unit -- or other elite units like it -- consisting of perhaps as many as 400 soldiers, would seize Iran's enriched uranium for transport to Israel.

The operation's success would depend on speed, secrecy, simplicity, and the credibility of Israeli intelligence. According to the Pentagon war planner, Israel's access to intelligence on Iranian military and policy planning is unprecedented, as is their willingness to share it with U.S. intelligence officials.

The Israeli unit would be transported on as few as three and perhaps as many as six C-130 aircraft (which can carry a maximum of 70 troops) that would be protected by a "swarm" of well-armed F16Is, according to the scenario being considered by U.S. military officers. The C-130s would land in the desert near Fordow. The Israeli commandos would then defeat the heavily armed security personnel at the complex, penetrate its barriers and interdict any enemy units nearby, and seize the complex's uranium for transport back to Israel. Prior to its departure, the commando unit would destroy the complex, obviating the need for any high-level bombing attack. (Senior U.S. military officers say that there are reports that some of the uranium at Fordow is stored as uranium hexafluoride gas, a chemical form used during the enrichment process. In that case, the material may be left in place when the commandos destroy the complex.)

"It's doable, and they have to be thinking along these lines," the highly placed U.S. military officer said. "The IDF's special forces are the best asset Israel has." That said, "In some scenarios," the U.S. military planner who told me of the potential operation said, "there would be very high Israeli casualties because of nearby Republican Guard [sic] divisions. This operation could be quite bloody."

Bloody or not, the Israeli leadership may not be quick to dismiss such an operation, given Israel's history of using such units. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are former Sayeret Matkal officers, and recently Israeli Defense Forces head Benny Gantz (himself a Sayeret Matkal veteran) said the IDF had formed an elite special operations "Deep Corps" to strike far inside hostile territory. And, of course, it bears remembering that Netanyahu's brother Yonatan was the sole casualty in Israel's Entebbe operation.

The difficulty with the Entebbe-style option is that Israel would be forced to mount "a robust CSAR [combat search and rescue] capability" to support it, a senior JCS planner noted. That would mean landing other C-130s carrying helicopters that could pick up endangered commandos or retrieve downed aircraft crews. Such CSAR units would have to be deployed to nearby countries, "or even land in the Iraqi desert," this senior officer said. This CSAR component complicates what might otherwise be a straightforward operation, as it involves other vulnerabilities -- an "escalatory ladder" that Israel may not want to climb. 

Skeptics of this option include Admiral Inman. "The Israelis could get to Entebbe," he said, "but they can't get to Iran. My sense is that the fact that the Israelis are even thinking about this operation shows that they realize that their first, bombing option won't work. They're desperately grasping for a military solution, and they know they don't have one."

But Colonel Gardiner believes this Entebbe-style operation is possible. "It's a non-escalatory option, it's entirely doable, and it's not as dangerous as it seems," he said. "We have to understand what Israel's goal is in any attack on Iran. The whole point for Israel is to show that they can they can project power anywhere in the region. So let's take a look at this from their perspective. There aren't three divisions near Fordow, there's one, and it's dug in. It wouldn't take the Iranians three hours to respond, it would take them three days. This reminds me of Osirak [the Iraqi nuclear reactor that Israel destroyed in a 1981 airstrike]. The last ones who wanted to admit that the Israelis did that were the Iraqis. That'll be the case here. The Iranians will be embarrassed. It has appeal. It makes sense. If it's simple, if it's done fast, if it's in and out. It could work."

A third operation is less exotic, but perhaps most dangerous of all: regime decapitation. "The Israelis could just take out the Iranian leadership," the senior Pentagon war planner said. "But they would only do that as a part of an air strike or a commando raid." The downside of a decapitation strike is that it would not end Iran's nuclear program; the upside is that it would almost certainly trigger an Iranian response targeting U.S. military assets in the region, as it would leave the Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces in charge of the country. It would be the one sure way, U.S. officers with whom I spoke believe, for Israel to get the United States involved in its anti-Iran offensive, with the U.S. mounting operations in a conflict it didn't start.

How would the U.S. military respond to an Iranian attack? "It depends," the Pentagon planner said. "If the Iranians harass us, we can deal with it, but if they go after one of our capital ships, then all bets are off." Even so, a U.S. response would not involve a full-scale, costly land war against the Tehran regime, but rather a long-term air interdiction campaign to erode Iranian military capabilities, including its nuclear program, the planner said.  

But a decapitation campaign would deepen the rift between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government. The war talk in Jerusalem has already eroded the views of many senior U.S. military officers who were once strongly committed to Israel, but who now quietly resent Netanyahu's attempt to pressure the United States into a war that it doesn't want. "Our commitment to Israel has been as solid as with any ally we've ever had, and a lot of officers are proud of that," Lt. General Robert Gard, a retired Army officer, said. "But we've done it so that they can defend themselves. Not so they can start World War III."

This U.S. distaste for involvement in an Israeli strike has been percolating for some time. In March, the New York Times detailed a Centcom war game dubbed "Internal Look," in which the United States was "pulled into" a regional conflict in the wake of an Israeli attack. The results "were particularly troubling" to Gen. James Mattis, the Centcom commander. Among its other conclusions, "Internal Look" found that Iranian retaliation against U.S. military assets could result in "hundreds of U.S. deaths," probably as the result of an Iranian missile attack on a U.S. naval vessel. The simulation, as well as Iranian threats to close the Straits of Hormuz, suggest why Mattis requested that the White House approve the deployment of a third aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf.

But while Mattis was worried about the Iranians, he was also worried about Israel, whose saber-rattling he views with discomfort, his closest colleagues say. "Internal Look" not only showed that the results of an Israeli attack were unpredictable, as the Times reported, but, according to a Pentagon official, it also showed that the less warning the United States has of an Israeli attack, the greater the number of casualties the United States will suffer. "The more warning we have, the fewer American lives we'll lose," a Pentagon civilian familiar with U.S. thinking on the issue told me. "The less warning, the more deaths."

According to another senior Pentagon official, Obama and Gen. Martin Dempsey "have discussed in detail" the likelihood of an Israeli attack. As early as the autumn of 2011, when Dempsey became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Obama told him that the United States would "neither help nor hinder" an Israeli strike, this official said. While Obama's closely guarded formulation hasn't made it into the American press, his words are common knowledge among Israeli officials and had appeared just six months after Obama took office, in July 2009, in a prominent editorial in the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom.

Obama, the editorial stated, "will try to have a dialogue with Iran" while knowing that such an effort will probably not succeed. Obama "would prefer that there be no Israeli attack but is unprepared to accept responsibility for Israel's security if he fails [in a diplomatic dialogue] and the U.S. prevents Israel from attacking," the editorial added. "Thus it arises that while Israel has no green light to attack Iran, it does not have a red light either. The decision is Israel's. The U.S. will neither help nor hinder."

Nevertheless, the U.S. military fears that Iran will assume the United States has approved an Israeli strike, even if it hasn't -- and will target U.S. military assets in the Persian Gulf. That may be why Dempsey told a roundtable of London reporters in August that he did not want to appear "complicit" in an Israeli attack. The remark touched off speculation that the United States was softening its stance toward Tehran or pressuring Israel to back away from using military force. In fact, nothing had changed: Dempsey was explicitly telling Iran that any Israeli attack would not have the approval or the help of the United States. So while Israel waited for Obama to explain or correct Dempsey's statement, no clarification was forthcoming. "Dempsey knew exactly what he was saying," the highly placed military officer said, "and he wouldn't have said it without White House approval." After a moment, he added: "Everything the military says has to be cleared, and I mean everything."

Those outside the U.S. government who follow these issues closely agree. "The administration's message has been remarkably consistent," U.S.-Iran expert and author Trita Parsi said. "We always hear about how America believes war is 'the last resort,' but in this case, President Obama really means it."

Gard, the retired Army officer, agreed: "It's clear to me that President Obama will do everything he can to stop Iran from getting a bomb," he said. "But no president will allow another country to decide when to shed American blood. Not even Israel." Gard has a reputation as a military intellectual, has led several initiatives of retired military officers on defense issues, and is a useful barometer of serving officers' views on sensitive political controversies. "There is a general disdain in our military for the idea of a preventive war," he said, "which is what the Israelis call their proposed war on Iran."

George Little, the Pentagon spokesperson, provided this statement: "The United States is prepared to address the full range of contingencies related to potential security threats in the Middle East. But it's flatly untrue -- and pure speculation -- to suggest that we have definitively ruled anything in or out for scenarios that have not taken place. Meanwhile, the United States and Israel are in complete agreement about the necessity of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."

Still, according to a respected retired military officer who consults with the Pentagon -- and who speaks regularly with senior Israeli military officers -- Israel's political elite is likely to be surprised by Obama and the U.S. military's response should Israel launch a preventive attack on Iranian nuclear sites. "If Israel starts a war," this retired officer said, "America's first option will be to stop it. To call for a ceasefire. And, by the way, that's also our second and third option. We'll do everything we can to keep the war from escalating. We'll have 72 hours to do that. After that, all bets are off."

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