Syria's Nuclear Revival

Hohenfels, Germany — Last year’s Israeli air force strike on an alleged Syrian plutonium reactor appears to have had two unintended consequences. It spurred Damascus to redouble its efforts to continue its atomic program, and it has drawn attention away from the Iranian and North Korean atomic weapons programs — thus making the world more dangerous.

The London-based Asharq Alawsat newspaper reported on October 2nd that Syrian President Bashar Assad has redoubled his efforts to develop a nuclear program. The paper reports that, following the Israeli airstrike, Syria changed course and began a nuclear program based on the Iranian model of simultaneously building multiple facilities in various sites throughout the country to make any effort to destroy its atomic facilities more difficult.

Further, the addition of Syria to the list of rogue nations seeking atomic weapons demonstrates the failure of ongoing efforts by the international community to denuclearize North Korea and Iran. Rather than cooperating in those efforts, Pyongyang and Tehran are each involved heavily (either on their own or in partnership) in developing Damascus’ atomic program.

Syria’s nuclear ambitions are an open secret. In 1986, then Syrian chief of staff, Gen. Hihmet al-Siabi, said his country seeks nuclear parity with arch rival Israel. Israel is believed to have at least 180 nuclear warheads.

But Syria denies that it has a covert nuclear weapons program. It says that its atomic ambitions are focused exclusively on energy production, which is supported by official statements. In August, President Assad visited Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, where the Syrian gave his support for the Iranian nuclear program, claiming that every state has the right to acquire atomic technology.

Of course, that is the same façade used by North Korea and Iran to give their atomic weapons program deniability. The Central Intelligence Agency director Michael Hayden warned Congress against naivete when he said Syria will act like its rogue partners “to delay and deceive” outsiders regarding its true nuclear intentions. Remember, North Korea successfully used these tactics for many years before testing a plutonium device in 2006. Iran is perhaps less than two years from a similar milestone.

There is plenty of evidence that Syria has gone well beyond rhetoric in its bid to secure a nuclear arsenal. This spring, Hayden told Congress “Do not assume that al Kibar [the Syrian reactor destroyed by Israel] exhausted our knowledge of Syrian efforts with regard to nuclear weapons.” Hayden said the agency had the “highest confidence level” that al Kibar housed a plutonium reactor designed to produce weapon grade fissile material.

What’s shrouded in uncertainty is the accuracy of America’s information regarding other aspects of Syria’s nuclear program. However, the information in the public domain is very compelling.

Apparently, the U.S. has information about a number of suspected Syrian nuclear sites. American officials have been pressing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog group, to demand access to three Syrian sites to look for evidence of nuclear activity, but Damascus has denied admittance, citing concerns over its “security.”

Certainly the U.S. is aware that Syria has accumulated nuclear technology which aids its secret weapons efforts. Syria likely received assistance from the nuclear trafficking network run by Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan, the same man who proliferated atomic technologies to Iran and North Korea. Even the IAEA has helped Syria with numerous atomic projects, including uranium extraction from phosphoric acid, isotope production and the construction of a cyclotron facility.

A 2004 CIA report to Congress on weapons proliferation is revealing. The report observes that Syria “… continued to develop civilian nuclear capabilities, including uranium extraction technology and hot cell facilities.” These are critical technologies potentially applicable to a weapons program.

Syria has also solicited nuclear assistance from a variety of countries, including Russia. That country, which has provided Iran and North Korea with nuclear assistance, is now seeking to renew its influence in the Mideast through the sale of sophisticated weapons, defense agreements and perhaps atomic energy knowhow. Broader access by Syria to Russian atomic expertise could provide opportunities for Syria to expand it indigenous weapons development capabilities.

Syria’s nuclear program has also been helped by the Iraq war. There is evidence that Iraqi nuclear scientists escaped to Syria and are working for Assad’s regime. A group of about 12 Iraqi nuclear technicians fled to Syria before the fall of Saddam’s regime. These experts allegedly brought considerable nuclear technology with them.

The second consequence of Israel’s destruction of the al Kibar site is the attention it takes away from the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. This is exacerbated by Tehran and Pyongyang, which are doing their best to accelerate Syria’s nuclear program.

Specifically, Syria has developed a very close relationship with North Korea. Moshe Arens, Israel’s three time minister of defense, told this writer that North Korea has been “peddling technology” in the Mideast for “20 to 30 years.” Recently, North Korean nuclear officials have been very busy in Syria helping to “Iranize” that atomic program.

The Syria-North Korea nuclear cooperation began “probably as early as 1997,” said a US intelligence official. The Syrian reactor destroyed by Israel was a North Korean designed reactor being built with assistance from Pyongyang. It was configured similarly to North Korea’s five megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, which was used to produce the plutonium for North Korea’s 2006 nuclear weapon test.

The Asharq Alawsat report which broke the Syrian nuclear story indicated that the new Iranian model is being built with experts from Pyongyang and that just last month Iranian experts arrived in Syria to join the project.

The al Kabir incident which spawned these consequences recently became even darker. The “point man” for Syria’s nuclear weapons program, Brig. Gen. Muhammad Suleiman, was assassinated at a beach resort near Tartus, Syria. The immediate impact of his death is that the IAEA’s investigation of the al Kabir site will be slowed. But the likely long-term implication is that Syria will use the incident to stiff-arm the IAEA, as Iran and North Korea have done for the past couple decades.

It’s clear that Syria has joined a growing club of atomic weapons rogues that threaten their neighbors and could lead to the proliferation of nuclear technologies to terrorist groups and other dangerous regimes.

It’s unfortunate that Israel’s strike on the al Kibar reactor created undesirable geopolitical consequences. But lack of action by the West will have vastly more undesirable consequences if inaction results in Syria and Iran achieving their nuclear weapons ambitions.