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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Is Syria trying to go nuclear?

The saga of last week's Israeli strike on that Syrian facility in a deserted area of northeastern Syria has continued throughout the weekend. Today, the Washington Post reported that Israel had conducted the raid after intelligence reports indicated the "delivery of nuclear material" to Syria three days earlier:
Meanwhile, a prominent U.S. expert on the Middle East, who has interviewed Israeli participants in a mysterious raid over Syria last week, reported that the attack appears to have been linked to the arrival three days earlier of a ship carrying material from North Korea labeled as cement.

The expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid compromising his sources, said the target of the attack appears to have been a northern Syrian facility that was labeled an agricultural research center on the Euphrates River, close to the Turkish border. Israel has kept a close eye on the facility, believing that Syria was using it to extract uranium from phosphates.

The expert said it is not clear what the ship was carrying, but the emerging consensus in Israel was that it delivered nuclear equipment. The ship arrived Sept. 3 in the Syrian port of Tartus; the attack occurred Sept. 6 under such strict operational security that the pilots flying air cover for the attack aircraft did not know details of the mission. The pilots who conducted the attack were briefed only after they were in the air, he said.

Israel has imposed heavy censorship on reporters regarding the raid, so few details have leaked. The expert said that Israel appeared to have learned a lesson from its experience in destroying the Osiraq nuclear reactor in Iraq -- that bragging about an operation only makes it easier for the world to condemn it.
I find it hard to believe that under those circumstances, the pilots would have talked. If the anonymous source is correct, it will be pretty easy for the IDF to track down the leak!

I'm sure the Syrians would love to go nuclear, but it cannot be their top priority. Syria's economy is a disaster. They are protected by Iran which is well on its way to going nuclear. Israel won't attack Syria unless Israel is (or sees itself on the verge of being) attacked by Syria. So Syria really doesn't need and cannot afford a nuclear program. Also, Syria does have a nuclear program, but it's nowhere near able to produce nuclear weapons.
Syria's nuclear program remains in the fundamental stages of development, with virtually no fuel cycle facilities in operation. However, there are a number of operating research facilities in Syria, including the Der Al-Hadjar Nuclear Research Center near Damascus, a nuclear analysis laboratory, and the Scientific Research Institute (SRI) in Damascus. The SRI has allegedly taken in Iraqi scientists prior to the recent Gulf War. In December 2002, an Italian newspaper cited an Iraqi officer who asserted that Syria had allowed Iraq to store its weapons of mass destruction in Syria research centers. These allegations were never confirmed. [I believe those reports, but I don't think they relate to nuclear weapons, and even if they did, I don't think the Syrians have the facilities or know-how to operate nuclear weapons. CiJ]

In 2003, Russian and Syrian officials continued their negotiations for the construction of a nuclear facility that would include a nuclear power plant and a seawater atomic desalination plant. Open sources reported that the Russian Minister of Atomic Energy confirmed that discussions over supplying Syria with a power plant and a desalination plant were taking place. However, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman refuted the Minatom statement and denied that any discussion had taken place. Consequently, Syria's quest for obtaining a nuclear power plant remains an unanswered question.
I find it hard to believe that the Syrians are going nuclear anytime soon. I still believe it was a chemical or biological facility, which is one of the possibilities raised in the Washington Post article linked above.

For the record, the Syrians are now denying that anything was bombed by the IAF or that anything was damaged. That denial makes sense if the target was something that the Syrians would not want anyone else knowing they had - which would discount the original reports of weapons being trans-shipped to Hezbullah.


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