WASHINGTON -- On Sept. 6, something important happened in northern Syria. Problem is, no one knows exactly what. Except for those few who were involved, and they're not saying.
We do know that Israel carried out an airstrike. How then do we know it was important? Because in Israel, where leaking is an art form, even the best informed don't have a clue. They tell me they have never seen a better-kept secret.
Which suggests that whatever happened near Dayr az Zawr was no accidental intrusion into Syrian airspace, no dry run for an attack on Iran, no strike on some conventional target such as an Iranian Revolutionary Guard base or a weapons shipment on its way to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Circumstantial evidence points to this being an attack on some nuclear facility provided by North Korea.
Three days earlier, a freighter flying the North Korean flag docked in the Syrian port city of Tartus with a shipment of "cement." Long way to go for cement. Within days, a top State Department official warned that "there may have been contact between Syria and some secret suppliers for nuclear equipment." Three days later, the Sept. 19 six-party meeting on dismantling North Korea's nuclear facilities was suddenly postponed, officially by China, almost certainly at the behest of North Korea.
Apart from the usual suspects -- Syria, Iran, Libya and Russia -- only two countries registered strong protests to the Israeli strike: Turkey and North Korea. Turkey we can understand. Its military may have permitted Israel an overflight corridor without ever having told the Islamist civilian government. But North Korea? What business is this of North Korea's? Unless it was a North Korean facility being hit.
Which raises alarms for many reasons. First, it would undermine the whole North Korean disarmament process. Pyongyang might be selling its stuff to other rogue states, or perhaps just temporarily hiding it abroad while permitting ostentatious inspections back home.
Second, there are ominous implications for the Middle East. Syria has long had chemical weapons -- on Monday, Jane's Defence Weekly reported on an accident that killed dozens of Syrians and Iranians loading a nerve-gas warhead onto a Syrian missile -- but Israel will not tolerate a nuclear Syria.
Tensions are already extremely high because of Iran's headlong rush to go nuclear. In fending off sanctions and possible military action, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has chosen a radically aggressive campaign to assemble, deploy, flaunt and partially activate Iran's proxies in the Arab Middle East:
(1) Hamas launching rockets into Israeli towns and villages across the border from the Gaza Strip. Its intention is to invite an Israeli reaction, preferably a bloody and telegenic ground assault.
(2) Hezbollah heavily rearmed with Iranian rockets transshipped through Syria and preparing for the next round of fighting with Israel. The Third Lebanon War, now inevitable, awaits only Tehran's order.
(3) Syria, Iran's only Arab client state, building up forces across the Golan Heights frontier with Israel. And on Wednesday, yet another anti-Syrian member of Lebanon's parliament is killed in a massive car bombing.
(4) The al-Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards training and equipping Shiite extremist militias in the use of the deadliest IEDs and rocketry against American and Iraqi troops. Iran is similarly helping the Taliban to attack NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Why is Iran doing this? Because it has its eye on a single prize: the bomb. It needs a bit more time, knowing that once it goes nuclear, it becomes the regional superpower and Persian Gulf hegemon.
Iran's assets in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are poised and ready. Ahmadinejad's message is this: If anyone dares attack our nuclear facilities, we will fully activate our proxies, unleashing unrestrained destruction on Israel, moderate Arabs, Iraq and U.S. interests -- in addition to the usual, such as mining the Strait of Hormuz and causing an acute oil crisis and worldwide recession.
This is an extremely high-stakes game. The time window is narrow. In probably less than two years, Ahmadinejad will have the bomb.
The world is not quite ready to acquiesce. The new president of France has declared a nuclear Iran "unacceptable." The French foreign minister warned that "it is necessary to prepare for the worst" -- and "the worst, it's war, sir."
Which makes it all the more urgent that powerful sanctions be slapped on the Iranian regime. Sanctions will not stop Ahmadinejad. But there are others in the Iranian elite who might stop both him and the nuclear program before the volcano explodes. These rival elites may be radical but they are not suicidal. And they believe, with reason, that whatever damage Ahmadinejad's apocalyptic folly may inflict upon the region and the world, on Crusader and Jew, on infidel and believer, the one certain result of such an eruption is Iran's Islamic republic buried under the ash.