Edition 44 Volume 5 - November 29, 2024

A Syrian nuclear program?

The Assads' nuclear itch -   Ammar Abdulhamid

The Syrian nuclear program dates back to the 1980s and to Hafez Assad's ambitious drive to reach "strategic parity" with Israel.

The media has gone nuclear about Syria -   Rime Allaf

It is incumbent on the media to exercise responsibility and to simply report the fact that the Israeli raid on Syria remains a mystery.

Killing four birds with one stone -   Mark Fitzpatrick

If the bombed facility were a reactor under construction, it would not have presented a direct proliferation threat for several years.

Ambiguous preemption -   Emily B. Landau

The success of this strike stands in stark contrast to the failure so far of international efforts to stop Iran.

The Assads' nuclear itch
 Ammar Abdulhamid

The incredulity with which some quarters received the recent revelations that Syria does actually have a working nuclear program and not only nuclear dreams or ambitions, comes as an indication of how seriously ill-informed policymakers in the United States and Europe are. The ruling Assad regime in Syria has been seeking to establish a nuclear program for close to two decades now, even if no serious progress seems to have been made in this regard until the last 5-7 years.

The story of the Syrian nuclear program dates back to the 1980s, and specifically to the ambitious (or perhaps overambitious) drive of late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to, as he framed it, reach "strategic parity" with Israel. What this in essence boiled down to was a costly attempt at arms acquisition and development, including the importation of advanced missiles and missile technology from the Soviet Union and North Korea, and the developing of an advanced chemical weapons program in cooperation with these two countries and, at a later date, Iran as well. The idea of developing a nuclear program was also considered, but there was enough realism around to at least put it on a slower-moving track.

The story, however, took a different turn with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the realization by the Assad regime that achieving direct parity with Israel was no longer feasible, if it had ever been: the Syrian military was lagging far behind on important fronts and Syria simply lacked the necessary resources and allies to compensate. The new strategy that Assad ended up adopting put greater emphasis on developing the regime's short- and medium-range missiles and increasing and diversifying its existing chemical and biological weapons, while attempting to import wholesale some critical components, including a reactor, that could help to quickly launch an advanced nuclear weapons program.

In this regard, the late Assad initially hoped to acquire some necessary materials and know-how from former Soviet satellites and rogue scientists. But he soon discovered that the best that could be achieved this way was to acquire radioactive waste barely sufficient for constructing a few "dirty bombs". Seeing that these were not sufficient to serve as deterrents, Assad Sr. turned his attention elsewhere and engaged then Argentine President Carlos Menem. The latter, for a mixture of ideological and sentimental reasons (he was of Syrian descent himself, and so was his wife at the time) was very sympathetic to the Assad regime. Indeed, the gambit was about to pay off, as Menem was convinced to sell to his former co-nationalist a ready-made Argentinean reactor. But the sale was finally called off on account of increasing pressure from the Americans.

Frustrated, Assad and his men turned their attention to the Pakistanis and North Koreans. The Pakistani link, however, proved too unreliable. Despite some progress made in bilateral relations during the visit of then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to Syria in 1997, and despite the fact that the absence of a clear central authority in Pakistan created a real opportunity for buying some critical components, the complexity of Pakistani internal politics and the proliferation of middlemen proved too daunting to maneuver around.

The Assads had no other recourse then but to turn to North Korea.

But early contacts in this regard were interrupted on account of the transitional process that Syria witnessed between 1998 and 2024, with Bashar al-Assad inheriting his father's position as Syria's new narrowly-selected leader. Contacts resumed in 2024 when a rare high-level North Korean delegation paid a visit to Syria and met with Bashar and other top officials, thereby "officially" launching the process.

Still, cooperation between the two countries in this regard was always sporadic and was premised on the level of progress made by the international community in engaging the North Koreans with regard to their own nuclear program. It is safe to assume (on the basis of increasing reports concerning visits by North Korean officials and vessels over the last two years) that the Damascus regime intensified its efforts to elicit North Korean cooperation after the US-led invasion of Iraq and especially in the aftermath of the Assads' withdrawal from Lebanon and the launch of the UN probe into the Hariri assassination. For these developments meant that the Assads had to worry about their very survival now and not simply about achieving strategic parity with Israel.

It is this intensification of efforts on the part of the Assads that seems to have finally attracted the attention of the Americans and the Israelis. While this may not and should not be construed as a justification of the Israeli air-strike against the rumored nuclear site in northern Syria, it does at least put that mysterious event in the proper historical context, something that has so far been missing from the debate provoked by the attack.- Published 29/11/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian dissident and democracy activist, currently exiled in the United States. He is the founder and director of the Tharwa Foundation, a non-governmental organization dedicated to facilitating democratic processes and improving inter-communal relations across the broader Middle East and North Africa region.

The media has gone nuclear about Syria
 Rime Allaf

The most striking element of Israel's September 6 raid on Syrian territory was the aggressor's most unusual behavior, namely a reticence to brag about yet another illegal assault, to the point of imposing military censorship on media coverage. This after an equally unusual and totally spontaneous Syrian disclosure that a raid had in fact taken place, making the event even more peculiar. The normal, vague Syrian response to Israeli assaults had until then stopped, meekly and indefinitely, at reserving the right to retaliate.

By the time Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, some ten days later, declared having "a good deal of respect for the Syrian leader and for Syrian policy"--an unexpected sentiment not echoed by Israel's actions--there had been mysterious American leaks about alleged Syrian nuclear facilities or nuclear shipments and a growing array of theories about what had happened, adding much speculation but little actual information. When Syria suddenly cleaned up the site of the raid, a month later, most reports in the media and in the blogosphere triumphantly took this as an indication of Syria's "guilt."

Clearly, the latter's action did not significantly improve odds that the benefit of the doubt would be granted--even to the actual victim of aggression--especially as other Syrian sites attacked by Israel (such as the Golan town of Quneitra, systematically destroyed before Israel was forced to withdraw following the disengagement agreement in 1974) have been left intact in their desolation for decades, forced witnesses testifying about the violence of the enemy.

But no serious analyst or nuclear expert, not even hysterical fear mongers, can actually back up claims that Syria in its present condition could truly pose a threat to the security of Israel. As things stand, it is difficult to believe that Syria could develop into even a significant opponent to Israel, and as repeated reports by respected professionals in the field have stated, Syria's nuclear ambitions, if any, are modest, its capacities are non-existent and its potential for development in such matters is practically nil. No matter how it is presented, the nuclear linkage between Syria and North Korea or Iran has no basis.

Unfortunately, mainstream media's Pavlovian conditioning has ensured that the Bush administration's bait about supposed weapons of mass destruction, yet again, was taken unconditionally. Reliable villains don't come easy, and Syria has not done itself any favors in its clumsy handling of the affair. As usual, the official response was completely inadequate in comparison to the media-savvy exposes of both the attackers and the accusers; Syrian ministers with clearly unrelated portfolios and limited persuasive talents led the battle, while other officials gave contradicting information.

This in no way excuses the sloppy reporting and the rumors disguised as truth that covered the pages of newspapers and websites. In fact, most reports only exercised the necessary journalistic caution when covering Syria's initial announcement that it had been attacked, and that its air defense had challenged the Israeli planes and chased them out; until Israel actually confirmed the raid, making headline news, Syrian statements were described as alleged, claimed, supposed--anything but believable.

But even while doubting Syria's declarations, many reports, probably inadvertently, gave credibility to the argument of a nuclear Syria. Indeed, analysis seemed to accept the "normalcy" of the rumor that a nuclear facility had been hit, not only because it served the purpose of portraying Syria as a problem-maker in cahoots with even more undesirable regimes in the most dangerous of activities, but also because it elaborated on the reasons why Syria would want, or need, such capacities. As a deterrent against an occupying enemy whose own 200 plus nuclear warheads loom menacingly near, the only adequate measure is some of the same.

But while these well-presented arguments about Syrian needs by foreign (and generally anti-Syrian) media made perfect sense, they neglected to dig into the mountain of facts already covered by numerous proliferation reports, including details about the countries (mostly Western powers) that have assisted Syria and in which Syrian scientists have trained, and the description of the kind of research and production of which Syria is capable (mainly isotopes for medical and agricultural applications).

Such details, and the fact that unlike Israel, Syria is a signatory to the Non Nuclear Proliferation Treaty since 1969, do not support the scaremongering and the political agenda behind it. The events and the uncharacteristic behavior following the attack seem to suggest that both Syria and Israel have something to hide, and that they were surprised by each other's game as it was being divulged. For some analysts, repercussions of this raid are still being felt, from Annapolis to Beirut; for others still, the raid gave a new perspective on the preposterous plans for Tehran.

But unless--or rather, given Baghdad's recent experience, even if--the current American secretary of state can produce a vial of evidence to hold up during a session of the Security Council, it is incumbent on the media to exercise responsibility and to simply report the fact that the Israeli raid on Syria remains a mystery.- Published 29/11/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at London's Chatham House.

Killing four birds with one stone
 Mark Fitzpatrick

For those who insist on assessments based on facts rather than inference and un-confirmable claims by anonymous officials, the body of factual information about Israel's September 6 attack on a Syrian military facility provides very thin gruel.

We know with certainty only that the facility north of the village of al-Tibnah bore some resemblance to the North Korean "research" reactor at Yongbyon (similar length and width but dissimilar height and lacking cooling tower and chimney), that it had an apparent pumping station and that it had been under construction since 2024. Perhaps by no coincidence, the CIA soon thereafter, in the January-June 2024 version of its biannual report to the US Congress sharpened its public assessment of Syria's WMD-related technology acquisition to say: "we are looking at Syrian nuclear intentions with growing concern." Previous CIA reports had said only that US intelligence was monitoring Syria's nuclear research and development program for any signs of weapons intent. Another relevant fact is that Syria razed the facility soon after the attack. This cover-up complicates any future on-the-ground assessment and confirms that Syria had something to hide--although what country does not? The best guess is that it was a reactor under construction but this is still only a hypothesis.

Claims of North Korean involvement are easy to believe but even harder to substantiate with concrete information. Pyongyang was the first and one of the only countries to criticize the Israeli incursion of Syrian airspace, but it is not uncommon for Pyongyang to issue such condemnations. Rumors that North Korean personnel were killed in the attack have not been confirmed. Nor is there any corroboration to claims that the North Korean Namchongang Hi-Tech Engineering Service Company had an office in Syria involved in nuclear-related commerce, although it is known that dozens of North Korean missile experts have been stationed in Syria in connection with North Korea's Scud missile sales.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is usually the best source of unbiased information on nuclear proliferation claims. Yet the agency has been totally shut out, both by Syria, which could have asked for an IAEA assessment to prove that there was nothing nuclear-related at al-Tibnah, and by Israel and the US, which could have asked the IAEA to investigate their suspicions of undeclared nuclear work. Syria would not have been legally obliged to agree to an IAEA inspection request, but failure to notify the IAEA of a reactor under construction would be a safeguards violation under the new conditions for pre-notification of facilities promulgated by the IAEA Board of Governors in 1992.

If the bombed facility were a reactor under construction, it would not have presented a direct proliferation threat for several years, and then only if Syria also had access to a reprocessing facility to separate out weapons-usable plutonium from the irradiated fuel. Reprocessing plants are hard to hide, and the satellite imagery of al-Tibnah does not show anything resembling such a facility. Clandestine work elsewhere on reprocessing certainly is not out of the question, but Syria is not known to have nuclear expertise or infrastructure that would lend itself to this purpose.

Unless there is much more to the story than is known to date, it is reasonable to conclude that Israel's September 6 attack was not conducted to forestall an imminent Syrian nuclear weapons threat. If preemption was the motive, it could be that the target was material of potential use in a dirty bomb that could find its way into terrorist hands. It is more likely, however, that Israel attacked the al-Tibnah facility for a combination of strategic and political reasons. If so, Israel sent unmistakable warnings simultaneously to: Syria, that any attempt to develop a clandestine nuclear capability will be discovered and destroyed; North Korea, that it should not even think about nuclear cooperation with Israel's enemies; Iran, that Israel has both the will and the capability to destroy nuclear facilities that it judges to be threatening; and the major powers of the world, to take care of the Iran nuclear problem before Israel is compelled to take matters into its own hands.

If those messages were received, Israel will have killed four birds with one stone.- Published 29/11/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mark Fitzpatrick is senior fellow for non-proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Ambiguous preemption
 Emily B. Landau

Syria's ambitions in the nuclear realm did not arouse much attention prior to September 6 of this year. From time to time, reports would appear claiming that Syria was intent on moving in this direction, with concerns raised in the United States that it might have received assistance through A.Q. Khan's nuclear network, but these never engendered any sustained interest on the part of the international community. As for Syria's known nuclear program, it was too small to raise any concern.

Initial reports regarding Israel's alleged attack in early September maintained that the facility that was hit was apparently connected to secret nuclear activity being pursued in Syria with the assistance of North Korea. In response to these reports, some analysts in the US were quick to claim that there was no indication of significant nuclear activity in Syria that would justify such an attack. However, in the ensuing months information has emerged that supports what was initially reported, including satellite images proving that Syria took steps to totally destroy the remains of the facility. The latest theory--put forth by Israeli scientist Uzi Even--holds that what was hit might not have been a North Korean-style nuclear reactor but rather a bomb-making facility possibly housing several kilograms of plutonium for processing. Even's assessment is based on his reading of the satellite images of the Syrian facility.

It seems fairly clear today that although Syria had not in the past been a focus of attention in the nuclear realm, something very suspicious was going on lately, the exact nature of which is still not known. From Israel's point of view the situation was intolerable; in fact, Israel's action itself lends further credence to suspicions regarding what Syria was up to, as it is highly unlikely that Israel would have risked war with Syria for anything less than suspected nuclear activity (that would translate for Israel into a supreme strategic concern).

Israel's past record of dealing with WMD proliferation in the Middle East is varied. In 1981, when it sensed the world was not concerned enough with Iraq's nuclear program and viewed it as a direct and imminent threat to its population, Israel bombed Osirak in a preemptive military strike. Later, after the 1991 Gulf war, when Iraq's renewed nuclear efforts were exposed for all to see, Israel was prepared to allow the UN inspection regime to deal with its activities. At that point Israel also agreed to take part in the newly conceived arms control and regional security talks (ACRS) set up as part of the Madrid peace process. Here WMD arms control was discussed in a regional framework, with focus on threat perceptions and inter-state relations.

Toward the late 1990s, with the arms control talks suspended indefinitely, Israel's major focus turned to Iran's nuclear activity and it made great efforts to convince the West to wake up to this new but serious nuclear proliferation concern. From the late 1990s, there was also periodic speculation that Israel might decide to act militarily against Iran's facilities, as it did in Iraq. But following the revelations about Iran in 2024 and the new emphasis on proliferation hot-spots in the post-9/11 world, Iran finally became very much a focus of wider international concern.

Speculation as to possible Israeli military action continued and has even intensified in the past couple of years, but much has changed since 1981. First of all, international efforts are clearly focused on Iran, and even though they have not as yet borne fruit, Israel is released from the immediate pressure of acting alone. Moreover, beyond the familiar pros and cons of military action, an interesting aspect of the picture has to do with Israel's arms control dilemma, which has come into sharper focus through the handling of both Iran and Syria.

The key to this dilemma is embedded in Israel's security conception. On the one hand, there is the prescript that no country in the Middle East can be allowed to become a nuclear state that poses a threat to Israel's existence. But at the same time, there is Israel's own nuclear deterrent: its ultimate insurance policy. The fact that Israel is regarded as a de facto nuclear state means that when it comes to specific proliferation threats in the Middle East, Israel has a strong interest in eliminating them, but prefers not to draw unwarranted attention to itself.

In the case of Iran, once the international community became intensely involved the best option for Israel was to support these efforts. And when Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad became president and adopted the outrageous line that Israel should be wiped off the face of the map, it was easier for Israel to at times adopt a more vocal stance on Iran: ironically, Ahmadinezhad's statements legitimized an Israeli nuclear deterrent by underscoring just why it was needed.

And then came Syria. In this case Israel apparently once again felt the need to act, and quickly. It did not want the case of Syria to grow into another Iran, where international determination proves to be neither strong nor long-lasting enough to halt the program, thereby enabling Syria (like Iran) to slowly push its plans forward. But still Israel did not want to draw attention to itself. So--perhaps as a corollary to its ambiguous nuclear policy--it carried out "ambiguous preemption".

Beyond Israel's own calculation, the success of this strike stands in stark contrast to the failure so far of international efforts to stop Iran, and in this sense highlights the essence of the arms control challenge that faces the broader international community today.- Published 29/11/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Emily B. Landau is senior research associate and director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), at Tel Aviv University. She teaches nuclear arms control at Tel Aviv and Haifa universities.

Email This Article

Print This Article