Mystery in the desert

Reuters says that IAEA inspectors are finding traces of graphite and uranium at a site alleged to have been a nuclear facility that was bombed by Israel in 2007. The ambiguous, almost teasing quality of the IAEA is consistent with the agency’s style. It never finds enough to convict but always enough to remain suspicious.


The first word that graphite particles had turned up came with the release of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s second report on Syria in three months. But U.N. officials familiar with it said the IAEA inquiry remained inconclusive.

Still, one senior U.N. official said the discovery of additional uranium traces was “significant.” That, together with graphite traces that are undergoing more tests, raised pressure on Damascus to provide evidence for its denials of wrongdoing.

The IAEA’s November report said the site bore features that would resemble those of an undeclared nuclear reactor.

But while there’s no doubt that IAEA will stay in business there are a number of unanswered questions about what the purpose of the mysterious facility was intended to have been. There are suggestions it was part of something else. In mid-2008 the Washington Post reported that the United States had asked it to broaden its search, “hinting that Damascus’s nuclear program might be bigger than the single alleged reactor destroyed by Israeli warplanes last year.” The Washington Post continued:

The absence of a clear fuel source for the reactor — as well as a fuel-reprocessing facility for extracting plutonium — has baffled experts who have studied the Syrian project. “It’s like having a car but not enough gas to run it,” said David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear inspector in Iraq and the president of the Institute for Science and International Security.


Global Security summarizes the anomalous character of the facility. It alleges that based upon a review of literature before the strike, that neither the US nor any other major power suspected Damascus was up to anything. What it the Global Security article didn’t explain was the front-loaded response that was even more mystifying than the facility itself. Not only was the facility previously unknown, the response to it was unprecedented. Rather than embark on the well known Via Dolorosa of opaque diplomatic warnings, requests for IAEA investigation, sanctions, threatened military actions, attempted Security Council Resolutions — the process is well known to the readers, someone simply went and bombed it.

The disconnection of the bombed Syrian site from other components of a nuclear weapons development effort strongly suggests that Damascus had partners in its effort. Suspicion has been cast in several directions. North Korea. There have even been arguments on several blog sites that the Syrian site was somehow connected to the WMD program that Operation Iraqi Freedom never found. But another clue to the nature of the facility comes indirectly: from an examination of Syrian strategy. The Daily Telegraph, citing a Janes analysis of satellite imagery, reports that Syria is rebuilding its chemical weapons capability. Since nerve gas weapons are threshold crossing devices like nuclear warheads, we can infer a lot about the vanished ‘alleged’ and bombed program by examining the chemical efforts of Damascus.


The Janes’s report said that new structures for warehousing and manufacturing complex chemical materials had been built. The buildings had sophisticated filtration systems and cooling towers. Bays for specially adapted Scud missiles had also been built.

It has long been suggested in intelligence circles that Syria had acquired chemical weapons munitions from Iraq in the run-up to the US-led assault on the country. An analysis by JIR suggested that the work on the al-Safir facility in the north-west of the country had started in 2005, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, and was continuing last year.

Jane’s analysts said that al-Safir was among the most significant chemical weapons production, storage and weaponisation sites in Syria. “Its presence indicates Syria’s desire to develop unconventional weapons either to act as a deterrent to conflict with Israel or as a force enhancer should any conflict ensue,” said Christian LeMière, editor of JIR. “Further expansion of al-Safir is likely to antagonise Israel and highlight mutual mistrust, even as peace talks between the two neighbours progress intermittently.

From between the lines in the Telegraph report, we see that the likely strategic target of Damascus’ efforts is Israel. Syria, by acquiring an arsenal of its own would destroy the nuclear monopoly that Israel now enjoys. The Bomb would free Syria from any worry that a new US administration would restart the Bush doctrine. Assad could never be toppled like Saddam.  It would provide Damascus with a freer hand to operate in the region. But it would also be a fundamentally destabilizing event.


The front-loaded, bolt from the blue strike on Syria can retrospectively be understood as an Israeli message, delivered with tacit US support, that it would not tolerate a rival nuclear weapons power in the region. Israel served notice, by pulverizing the facility, that it regards this as an existential threat. The future significance of that fact lies in that, as Iran edges closer to developing its bomb, that it brings the region closer to that invisible tripwire. The inference is that if an Israeli response to Iran comes, it may arrive without warning.

As current diplomatic efforts to bring a comprehensive solution to the Middle East go forward, there is the danger that too much emphasis will be placed on the well known constituent parts: Gaza, West Bank, the two or one state concept, rights of return, settlements, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Golan Heights, the Shaba Farms — and too little consideration given to the larger context. The Sunni-Shi’ite tension between the capitals of the Arab world and the resurgent Persians; the excruciating existential position of Israel; the random effect of Islamic militancy — these are larger regional issues which find their most concentrated expression in the development of WMDs that throw a faint, but giant shadow over the Peace Process.

The attack on the Syrian nuclear facility which wasn’t supposed to exist wasn’t supposed to have taken place either. There is still room for surprise in the Middle East.



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