Syria’s Reactor

On the surface, the CIA evidence that Syria was building a Yongbyon-type nuclear facility is compelling. There are some writers who seem less convinced, such as Glenn Greenwald of who expresses his "Skepticism toward Bush claims about Syria and North Korea."  He writes: "After flamboyantly announcing that they had actual video of North Korean nuclear scientists inside the Syrian building, it turned out that the "video" was merely a compilation of rather unrevealing still photographs patched together, in Colin-Powell-at-the-UN fashion, with ominous narration making accusations with a level of certainty completely unmatched by the "evidence" itself.

Most skeptics argued that we cannot trust the CIA any longer and the photos could be cobbled together to suggest Syrian guilt. I have no way to judge this, but Syria could certainly have done more to back up Ambassador Imad Moustapha who has been left alone to deny photographic evidence. The Syrian government could at the very least supply a few photos of its own, suggesting that what it called a military warehouse was, in fact, just that. It has not chosen to do that for reasons it has not explained.

The second criticism of the CIA's effort was to argue that Washington should not be encouraging Israel to launch bombing raids without first going through legal channels, international agencies, and peaceful alternatives. Shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later policies are sure to undermine US legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. They will do nothing to dispel Arab anger at US and Israeli arrogance. On the contrary, the propensity to use force as a first option will convince others to do the same.

Watch the video of the CIA presentation to the congressional committees. Washington Post

US Syria claims raise wider doubts
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC News

More than half a year after the Israeli air strike that destroyed the alleged nuclear reactor under construction in Syria, Washington's release of what it says are still images of the facility before the raid amounts to the diplomatic equivalent of throwing a very large rock into a deep pool.

[landis: it should be noted that in the photo copied below, the Syrian side of this pair of photos has been colored red by a US technician in order to make the viewer see a greater similarity between what are being called the refueling ports in each shot.

The ramifications could be considerable, both for the Middle East and for the future of North Korea's own nuclear weapons programme. Further distrust has been sown between the United States and the UN's nuclear watchdog – the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). And even on Capitol Hill Democrat lawmakers are angry that the administration apparently sat on this evidence for some considerable time.

Shades of Iraq?

Briefings about alleged weapons of mass destruction programmes have a lot to live down in the wake of the US experience in Iraq.

Everyone remembers the time in February 2003 when then US Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations armed with tape-recordings and images to make the case about Iraq's weapons activities.

The briefing – seemingly the best that the combined US intelligence agencies could come up with – turned out to be misleading to say the least. Subsequently, no weapons were found.

Perhaps mindful of the mistakes of the past, the ten-minute video released by the Bush administration in an effort to prove the Syria-North Korea connection is less ambitious and more focused.

It uses still images which, it is claimed, were taken inside the facility during its construction. There is of course no independent way to verify this.

But an initial analysis suggests that the pictures show a gas-cooled graphite moderated reactor of a very similar type to the North Korean model at Yongbyon.

Unanswered questions

At face value at least, the US evidence is compelling.

But the revelations raise as many questions as they answer.


6 Sept 2007: Israel bombs site in Syria
1 Oct: Syria's President Assad tells BBC site was military
24 Oct: New satellite images taken show site bulldozed clear
24 April 2008: US claims Syrian site was nuclear reactor

What was this reactor for? There are no signs of the ancillary facilities needed if it was for power-generation.

But then, equally, there are no signs of the other elements of a bomb-making programme either – a plant to separate out the plutonium and a factory to actually assemble a weapon.

If, as the Americans say, the reactor was close to completion, where would its uranium fuel have come from?

But beyond the practical and technical questions the most pressing uncertainties are political and diplomatic.

Above all, why did the US go public now? And was this an effort to further isolate Syria or to bring additional pressure on North Korea?

Diplomatic cross-currents

The underscoring of an alleged nuclear link between Pyongyang and Damascus certainly harms both governments.

For all the talk of renewed conflict between Israel and Syria, there has also been a good deal of talk about a possible deal over the Golan Heights as well.

The signals have been complex and contradictory. But highlighting a clandestine Syrian nuclear programme now might serve to reinforce Syria's isolation.

Without US brokerage, any talk of a Syria-Israel deal is illusory.

Some analysts believe that the decision to go public on the evidence of the Syrian reactor project may be the culmination of the playing out of competing currents within the Bush Administration.

In this scenario it is a victory of the more hawkish voices, who fear that President Bush might be going soft as his term of office draws to a close. In their view, the Americans should not accept any dealings with Syria, nor should it make the concessions required to North Korea to keep alive the deal to roll back its nuclear programme.

Such arguments appear strongest with regard to North Korea. It is clear that conservative voices both inside and outside the Bush administration see the proposed agreement with North Korea as fatally flawed.

More liberal arms control experts also hold that view. "It stinks," one told me, "but perhaps the US should hold its nose in the hope of keeping the negotiating track open".

So were the intelligence revelations intended to anger Pyongyang to damage any chance of a deal?

Or was this a clearing of the air ahead of further progress? Interestingly, the chief US negotiator, Christopher Hill, has now noted that in the US view, nuclear co-operation between North Korea and Syria is no longer continuing.

During the coming weeks it will be interesting to see how things unfold. Will Syria-Israel tensions be stoked up? Will Pyongyang walk away from the negotiating table or offer up the long-delayed description of its nuclear activities?

IAEA ire

…A statement from the IAEA says that Dr ElBaradei "deplores the fact that this information was not provided to the agency in a timely manner". It is now going to investigate further.

But with the site of the alleged reactor razed, a new building constructed over it – and the Syrians unlikely to provide access – it is hard to see how far the IAEA's investigations can go.  [BBC]

US rebuked over Syria nuclear case

The head of the UN nuclear monitoring agency has criticised the US for withholding intelligence information that it says showed the construction of a nuclear reactor in Syria.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on Friday also hit out at Israel for bombing the site before inspectors could investigate. ElBaradei deplores the fact that the information was not immediately passed on to the Vienna-based watchdog in accordance with the guidelines of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the IAEA said in a statement.

The question regarding Syria, North Korea, Iran and (at least retrospectively) Iraq is this: What to do?
William Arkin of the Washington Post

Yesterday the Bush administration made the claim that Syria was "within weeks or months" of completion of a nuclear reactor — which of course is not nuclear weapon. Part of the problem here is the exaggeration that goes into describing (and understanding) a nuclear weapons program. Even if Syria managed to complete a plutonium production reactor, and then managed to operate it for the months would be needed to manufacture the materials it needed, and then managed to machine that plutonium, and then design and fabricate a nuclear weapon, many months if not years would go by. Such a program would be detected, proven and probably thwarted by the international community.

In other words, to bomb a single unfinished possible reactor last September was a panicked and flawed response. It did not further the ultimate goal of non-proliferation. In the war of persuasion, in the international battle to improve the rule of law, the actual goal is undermined, for the "illegality" of Syria developing nuclear weapons in the first place is based upon law, actual or societally accepted. Turning to preemption and just taking the law into one's own hands achieves nothing.

Under the NPT, the agency has a responsibility to verify any proliferation allegations in a non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT," the agency said.

U.S. intel dates N.K.-Syria ties to 1997-2007

Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic
April 24, 2008 Press Release 

The government of The Syrian Arab Republic regrets and denounces the campaign of false allegations that the current United States administration continually launches against Syria claiming the presence of nuclear activity. And while Syria utterly denies these allegations, it also stresses that this campaign aims primarily to misguide the US Congress and international public opinion in order to justify the Israeli raid in September of 2007, which the current US administration may have helped execute.  It has become obvious that this maneuver on the part of this administration comes within the framework of the North Korean nuclear negotiations.

Syria calls on the US to act responsibly and desist from creating further crises in the Middle East, which already suffers from the results and repercussions of failed American policies in the region. Furthermore, the Syrian government hopes that the international community and the American public, particularly, will be more cautious and aware this time around in facing such unfounded allegations.

Bashar Al Assad: "Ardogan did relay Olmert's readiness to return the Golan." In the Qatari, Al Watan, here (Thanks FLC)

Assad said that Ankara had been mediating between Israel and Syria since April 2007, according to Zaman. In Ankara, Turkish officials neither denied nor confirmed the report.

(see "Israelis Claim Secret Agreement with US."

Comments (59)

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51. T said:

From the Chief Iraqi UNSCOM weapons inspector- who was one of the few accurate experts on the status of Iraqi WMDs- beforehand.

Evidence-based Bombing

By publishing intelligence on a possible Syrian nuclear facility, the US has endorsed after the fact Israel’s illegal use of force in attacking it

By Scott Ritter
26/04/08 “The Guardian” — -It looks as if Israel may, in fact, have had reason to believe that Syria was constructing, with the aid and assistance of North Korea, a facility capable of housing a nuclear reactor. The United States Central Intelligence Agency recently released a series of images, believed to have been made from a videotape obtained from Israeli intelligence, which provide convincing, if not incontrovertible, evidence that the “unused military building” under construction in eastern Syria was, in fact, intended to be used as a nuclear reactor. Syria continues to deny such allegations as false.

On the surface, the revelations seem to bolster justification not only for the Israeli air strike of September 6 2007, which destroyed the facility weeks or months before it is assessed to have been ready for operations, but also the hard-line stance taken by the administration of President George W Bush toward both Syria and North Korea regarding their alleged covert nuclear cooperation. In the aftermath of the Israeli air strike, Syria razed the destroyed facility and built a new one in its stead, ensuring that no follow-up investigation would be able to ascertain precisely what had transpired there.

Largely overlooked in the wake of the US revelations is the fact that, even if the US intelligence is accurate (and there is no reason to doubt, at this stage, that it is not), Syria had committed no crime, and Israel had no legal justification to carry out its attack. Syria is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and under the provisions of the comprehensive safeguards agreement, is required to provide information on the construction of any facility involved in nuclear activity “as early as possible before nuclear material is introduced to a new facility”. There is no evidence that Syria had made any effort to introduce nuclear material to the facility under construction.

While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global watchdog responsible for the implementation of nuclear safeguards inspections, has pushed for the universal adherence to a more stringent safeguards standard known as the “additional protocol of inspections”, such a measure is purely voluntary, and Syria has refused to sign up to any such expansion of IAEA inspection activity until such time as Israel signs the NPT and subjects its nuclear activities to full safeguards inspections. While vexing, the Syrian position is totally in keeping with its treaty obligations, and so it is Syria, not Israel, that was in full conformity with international law at the time of Israel’s September 6 2007 attack.

The United States and Israel contend that the Syrian-North Korean construction project was part of a covert nuclear weapons programme. However, even the United States admits that the facility under construction in Syria lacked any reprocessing capacity, meaning its utility for producing plutonium for a nuclear bomb was nil. Rather than serving as the tip of the iceberg for a nuclear weapons programme, it seems more likely that the Syrian facility was intended for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Following the same path as Iran, Syria most probably was positioning itself to present the world with a fait acompli, noting that the current US-Israeli posture concerning the regime in Damascus would not enable Syria to pursue and complete any nuclear programme declared well in advance. By building the reactor in secret, Syria would be positioned to declare the completed facility to the IAEA prior to the introduction of any nuclear material, and then hope to hide behind the shield of the IAEA in order to prevent any Israeli retaliation.

But this is all speculation. By bombing the Syrian facility, Israel not only retarded any Syrian nuclear ambition, peaceful or otherwise, but also precluded a full, definitive investigation into the matter by the international community. Perhaps fearful that Syrian adherence to the NPT would underscore its own duplicity in that regard, the Israeli decision to bomb Syria not only allowed the Syrian effort to be defined as weapons-related (an unproven and unlikely allegation), but by extension reinforced the Israeli (and American) contention that the nuclear activity in Iran was weapons-related as well.

The international debate that has taken place about the Syrian facility shows how successful the Israeli gambit, in fact, was, since there is virtually no discussion about the fact that Israel violated international law in attacking, without provocation, a sovereign state whose status as a member of the United Nations ostensibly affords it protection from such assault. The American embrace of the Israeli action, and the decision to produce intelligence information about the nature of the bombed facility at this late stage in the game, only reinforces the reality that the United States has turned its back on international law in the form of arms control and non-proliferation agreements.

The Bush administration seeks to use the alleged Syrian nuclear facility as a lynchpin in making its arguments against not only the Iranian nuclear programme, but also to scuttle the current discussions with North Korea over its nuclear weapons activities. Having embraced pre-emptive war as a vehicle to pursue its unilateral policy of regime change in Iraq (and having sold that conflict based upon hyped-up weapons of mass destruction charges), it should come as no surprise that the Bush administration would seek to support, and repeat, past patterns of behaviour when pursuing similar policies with Syria, Iran and North Korea.

Truth, and the adherence to international law, have never been an impediment to implementation of American policy objectives under the Bush administration.

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April 26th, 2008, 10:53 pm


52. Qifa Nabki said:

I am scratching my head often these days.

We are living in strange times. Israel’s airstrike and the nuclear business is odd enough. But it makes even less sense given that Syria and Israel have been making very public statements about pursuing peace in the near term.

Can somebody explain this? (Indeed has anyone sought to explain it)?

In the meantime, Jumblatt has openly broken ranks with March 14 about joining Berri’s dialogue, so he must know something… He seems to be single-handedly trying to change the majority’s stance vis-a-vis a compromise with the opposition.

Entropy? Chaos as usual? Or is there some hidden logic that we are all missing?

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April 27th, 2008, 12:08 am


53. Qifa Nabki said:

A few interesting discussions on the main Aounist blog, FPM Forum.

1. Analysis of the likely electoral outcomes of two different laws, i.e. 1960 vs. a proportional law like that of the Boutros Commission. (The first gives the opposition 59 seats; the latter would net 68). In either case, we’re not talking about a landslide: scenario 1 is not even a majority, and scenario 2 is a very slim one. Compromise will be the order of the day, no matter what.

2. FPM attitudes about Hizbullah’s arms. Interestingly, the recurrent theme is: we want them to disarm and integrate, but not before the Palestinian camps are disarmed.

3. Brief discussion of Saad Hariri’s off-the-cuff statement about his support for the 1960 law and his pledge NOT to nationalize the Palestinians. The originator of the thread says that he believes that if the majority can commit to these two points, the opposition would elect Suleiman as president. The nationalization issue is the big one for the FPMers, it seems.

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April 27th, 2008, 12:49 am


54. Rowan Berkeley said:

I think I already asked “Friend of America” a day or two back to tell us something about his sources. Personally, I think he is confabulating them.

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April 27th, 2008, 2:04 am


55. Shai said:


I’ll tell you Barak’s side in this (no, not Barack Obama, Ehud Barak… 🙂 )

The Friday of the strike, he was at some dinner party, with a bunch of friends some of whom obviously knew a bit about “who done it”. Everyone understood that this attack was a huge risk (Syria could have retaliated), and everyone also knew what you just said, namely that both nations had been sending peaceful messages across to one another. So someone dared ask the question “Ehud, are we now closer to peace with Syria?” (sarcastically with a hint of criticism). Apparently, Barak hesitated a bit, then responded with “… I guess we are closer, yes.” and a smile. Interpretation? If he indeed believed this was a reactor about to produce plutonium, and if he truly feared that acquiring this capability would change the regional balance of power to such extent that it would not be clear whether Israel and Syria could or would make peace in the near future, then from his point of view, the attack helped maintain the conditions best suited for peace (as he saw them). From his point of view, he was doing a service both to the security of his nation, and to peace…

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April 27th, 2008, 3:56 am


56. Rowan Berkeley said:

damn funny thing about that transcript – it has no apostrophes.

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April 27th, 2008, 4:19 am


57. Procopius said:

For what it’s worth, on Sept. 6, 2007, there was an international archaeology team working in Halabbiye-Zenobia, less than 3 km away from the bombed site, on the other bank of the river : you can check it out on GoogleEarth. Before the strike, they never noticed anything unusual, and they could walk up and down both sides of the river without any trouble. That doesn’t sound like a heavy guarded top secret area to me.

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April 27th, 2008, 7:27 am


58. Global Voices amin´ny teny malagasy » Siria:Vaovao mipoapoaka momba ny niokleary said:

[…] Tsy nampandry saina ireo mpitoraka blaogy siriana ny votoatin’ilay vaovao, saiky ny rehetra mihitsy no nahatsiaro ny fomba nataon’i Collin Powell ho fampahafantarana ny ONU momba ireo WMD nolazaina fa nisy tao Iraka nefa tsy hita velively hatramin’izao. Joshua Landis no mandravona ny fanehoan-kevitr’ireo mpampahalala vaovao maro manodidina iny vaovao iny no sady mitondra fanamarihana momba ny politikan’i Amerika “Daroka -aloha-avy eo-manontany” […]

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April 27th, 2008, 3:44 pm


59. Rowan Berkeley said:

I just downloaded the transcript again, since I hadn’t bothered to store a copy, and now it has all the apostrophes. I swear it didn’t have them when I first looked at it!

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April 27th, 2008, 6:41 pm


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