On June 5, the IAEA reported that new traces of uranium had been discovered at a suspected nuclear site in Syria. As the U.S. tries to get the international community to stop Iran and North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, Syria is acting as a critical link in the WMD alliance of the remaining Axis of Evil members. The programs in Iran and North Korea could be temporarily shut down, but so long as Syria acts as a satellite station for their activities, their capabilities will continue to grow.
The IAEA report stated that the uranium traces recently found in Syria “are of a type not included in Syria’s declared inventory of nuclear material.” In addition, Syria is refusing to grant the IAEA unfettered access to three sites suspected of being nuclear in nature. These are clear signs that Syria is embarking on the capability to produce nuclear weapons.
The concern over such a program caused Israel to bomb a suspected nuclear site called Al-Kibar on September 6, 2007. Covertly taken photographs and other information strongly indicated that the site was a North Korean-designed and constructed nuclear reactor that could have produced enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapon per year. After the raid, the Syrians conducted a quick clean-up operation and refused to provide the IAEA with the debris. The U.S. ambassador to the IAEA said that satellite photos detected similar clean-up operations at two other suspected sites after the agency inquired about them.
The IAEA did find particles of graphite and uranium at al-Kibar, and concluded that the Syrians claims that it was debris from the Israeli munitions used in the attack were false. Syria’s answers to IAEA questions regarding the nature of the site were described
as “partial and included information already provided and did not address most of the questions raised in the agency’s communications.”
The province of Dayr az-Zawr, where al-Kibar is located, was previously identified as one of the locations where Iraqi WMD materials had been sent to prior to the beginning of the invasion. A declassified Pentagon document describes an Iraqi dissident as reporting that on March 10, 2003, 50 trucks entered this province, and one of the drivers mentioned a previous shipment on March 1. The dissident claimed that he confirmed the shipments were WMD-related with a man who used to work in the Iraqi embassy in Damascus who told him to keep quiet about the shipments.
The Israeli strike was not a strike solely aimed at the Syrians, but aimed at damaging Iran’s own program as well. A former Iranian deputy defense minister, Ali Reza Asghari, who defected in February 2007, told the West that the Iranians were bankrolling North Korea’s assistance to the Syrian nuclear program. The Israelis believe the Iranians spent $1-2 billion on the project so they could receive the site’s nuclear fuel which could then be reprocessed into weapons-grade plutonium. To help protect the site ultimately destroyed by the Israelis, no electronic communications were permitted to come from the site, and all such communication was done through couriers.
The discovery of the Syrian program shocked the U.S. Intelligence Community, which long held the belief that the Syrians lacked the capabilities to develop such a program, even though they are closely allied with the Iranians and North Koreans.
The German Defense Ministry’s former chief of staff, Hans Ruehle, described how critical Asghari was to discovering the nuclear activity. “No one in the American intelligence scene had heard anything of it. And the Israelis who were immediately informed also were completely unaware,” he said.
The position that Syria did not have a significant nuclear program was not due to a lack of evidence, but due to flawed analysis requiring unreasonably high stands of proof for correction.
John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has described experiencing such resistance when he served as the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. He has described how he engaged in “a bitter struggle” in 2003 with some in the Intelligence Community who stuck to the notion that Syria lacked the technology and money for a nuclear weapons program.
“The intelligence that did exist-which I thought warranted close observation of Syria, at a minimum- -- the IC [Intelligence Community] discounted as inconsistent with its fixed opinions. In short, theirs was not an intelligence conclusion, but a policy view presented under the guise of intelligence,” he wrote.
Even today, some anonymous officials are trying to discredit the idea of a Syrian-Iranian-North Korean nuclear axis. One “U.S. counterproliferation official” immediately suggested that Asghari was incorrect, and that the Al-Kibar project was limited to Syria and North Korea. Somehow the official believes that cooperation between Syria and Iran, North Korea and Iran, and North Korea and Syria is possible, but cooperation between all three is doubtful.
Despite the Israeli bombing and the recognition by the U.S. that Syria is seeking the capability to produce nuclear weapons, the Assad regime in Syria refuses to fully cooperate with the IAEA, and additional reports confirm that the program is ongoing.
The Syrians quickly built on top of the bombed site, which they now say is a missile site. Syria is also expanding its al-Safir site in the northeast, which appears to be a chemical weapons plant with bunkers for missiles. Iraqi nuclear scientists have also been said to be in Syria.
Con Coughlin reported in September 2004 that at least a dozen such scientists went to Syria before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, and then went to Iran. The Kuwaiti paper Al-Seyassah likewise reported in October 2007 that European intelligence sources said that 60 Iraqi experts had joined the Syrian nuclear program alongside scientists from Iran and the former Soviet Union. The Reform Party of Syria, a U.S.-based opposition group, also reported that Iraqi scientists were at a secret, partially-underground site near Deir al-Hajar that was disguised as having agricultural purposes.
It needs to be understood that the WMD programs of Syria, Iran and North Korea are all interconnected, with one program facilitating that of the others, and it is quite possible that tasks are divided amongst these partners. Should one of these axis members suspend their programs for short-term advantage, the West must not be tricked into believing that the other members aren’t picking up the slack.