For the first time since the Bolshevik Revolution, Russia’s president visited Syria. Of all the things to discuss and announce, Dmitri Medvedev and Bashar Assad held a press conference afterward where they announced that they had talked about nuclear cooperation, including the potential construction of a nuclear power plant in Syria. Any effort by Syria to get nuclear weapons capability must be seen as an extension of Iran’s own efforts.
By exporting part of their program to Syria, the Iranians can accelerate their own program or even suspend it to alleviate international pressure while continuing the work outside their borders. Any Israeli campaign to destroy the Iranian nuclear infrastructure will now require attacks on two countries. While the West seems to look at the nuclear programs of Iran, Syria, and North Korea as separate entities, they are in reality a Nuclear axis of evil with each partner contributing to the efforts of the others.
The success of the internationalization of WMD programs will cause other countries like Sudan, Burma, and Venezuela to join in, expediting their own pursuits while providing the overall alliance with additional security. This club can be likened to a modernized version of the AQ Khan network, where expertise, supplies, and technology are shared across borders.
In September 2007, Israel bombed a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria that was believed to be designed to create weapons-grade plutonium. Iran’s own nuclear reactor that could suit such a purpose has suffered from delay after delay by its Russian constructors. If the al-Kibar site in Syria were activated, this would allow Iran and Syria to pursue a nuclear bomb via plutonium in addition to the uranium track already being pursued.
The Syrians are clearly hiding the purpose of the site. A former senior German defense official says that North Korean shipments to the site had been detected since 2002, and the Syrians relied upon personal couriers for communication instead of radios and phones to stop Western intelligence from learning about their activity. Ali Reza Asghari, the former deputy defense minister of Iran who defected in 2007, claimed that Iranians were paying the North Koreans to develop the site. This same year, Syria received an estimated 45 tons of uranium yellowcake from North Korea, which is probably in Iran’s hands now.
Following the attack, satellite photos showed that the Syrians quickly began cleansing the site and removing the remains, which they are not allowing the IAEA to examine. The U.S. ambassador to the IAEA said that similar clean-ups were seen at two other nuclear sites after the agency asked about them. The site closely resembles the Yongbyon reactor in North Korea and is estimated by the CIA to have been capable of making enough plutonium for one or two bombs annually.
When the IAEA found that the traces of uranium discovered at al-Kibar were not from Syria’s declared inventory, the Assad regime claimed the uranium came from the bombs Israel dropped on it. The IAEA has concluded that this is not true and said the Syrians are not providing requested documentation related to the site’s activity. The Syrians’ answers to the IAEA’s questions were described as “partial and included information provided and did not address most of the questions raised in the Agency’s communication.”
The IAEA is now sounding the alarm on Syria’s nuclear program, although the media’s attention has been focused on Iran. Just this month, the IAEA said that “Syria has not cooperated with the Agency since June 2008” in regards to its investigation into their nuclear program. The Assad regime is still refusing to give the IAEA unlimited access, barring the inspectors from visiting three suspected nuclear sites in addition to the bombed site.
Syria is pursuing a nuclear weapon for multiple reasons. It is only natural for an anti-Western dictator like Bashar Assad to want nuclear weapons, both as a way of gaining prestige and to use as a deterrent against Israel and the United States. As Iran’s best ally, it shares in Iran’s aggressive agenda for the region. It is quite possible that Assad is aware of long-term plans by Iran to cause an upheaval in the region, and so the Assad regime wants to be prepared for when that day comes.
Another part of the calculation may be to pressure the West into making Israel declare and dismantle its own nuclear arsenal. Syria can choose to retain the capability to make nuclear weapons and not actually construct them as a way of trying to take the moral high ground over Israel. The Assad regime may offer to allow full IAEA inspection of their sites in return for an Israeli disarmament pledge. Such a move may or may not work, but it will certainly cause fissures between some Western countries and Israel, and place the attention back on its nemesis. If Israel is isolated diplomatically, or disarms, it greatly enhances the ability of Iran and Syria to change the balance of power in the region.
The Assad regime has to be seen as an extension of Iran. They are inseparable in their joint sponsorship of terrorism as well as their WMD programs. The U.S. effort to have sanctions placed on Iran must be closely followed by similar sanctions on Syria. If either program is not stopped, the West will see an international nuclear arms race.