|A Syrian bomb?
Douglas Davis, Jerusalem Post, Sept 9, 2004, updated January 4, 2005
Much energy has been expended in attempting to block Iran's seemingly inexorable drive toward acquiring nuclear weapons. But there is growing concern that all this activity has merely served to mask a potentially more sinister, more dangerous development: The acquisition of nuclear weapons by Syria, perhaps with the assistance of its Iranian ally.
On May 11, US President George W. Bush triggered the implementation of a basket of sanctions
against the regime of Bashar Assad that had been approved by Congress six months earlier.
Bush cited Syria's support for terrorism, its military presence in Lebanon, its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and its actions to undermine US efforts to stabilize and reconstruct Iraq. Such activities, declared Bush, are "sufficiently grave to constitute a threat to the national security, foreign policy, and the economy of the United States." While the Bush administration might have been prompted to act against Damascus because it is blatantly facilitating the entry into Iraq of terrorists who are intent on attacking US forces, there might have been another reason for Washington's attempt to contain the Assad regime.
Alarm bells are now ringing in Washington and some European capitals over reports that Syria might have acquired gas centrifuges, which would provide Damascus with the ability to produce enriched uranium for the development of nuclear weapons.
In the complex diplomatic game of carrots and sticks, senior US lawmaker Tom Lantos arrived in Damascus last month with what he hoped would be a tempting carrot to offset the Bush stick.
After meeting Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk a-Shara, the Californian Democrat appealed to the Syrians to follow the example set by Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, who has renounced weapons of mass destruction.
Lantos pointed out that Gaddafi "will reap endless benefits in political, economic and cultural ties with the United States and the civilized world as a result of his actions." And, he hinted, Syria might also enjoy such benefits - if it takes "the appropriate steps."
"As a friend of the Syrian people I want to see the leaders of this great nation make the right choice as well," said Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.
With Washington breathing down Syria's neck, one might have expected the conciliatory message from Lantos to be enthusiastically embraced. It wasn't.
One reason for Syria's obduracy could be that it is pursuing an objective that it believes will turn the tables on America. Damascus might have traveled farther down the road to acquiring nuclear weapons than anyone had previously dared to guess.
IF SYRIA has indeed made progress in the nuclear field, it almost certainly occurred via the clandestine nuclear network that was established by renegade scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who is revered in his native Pakistan as the Father of the Islamic Bomb.
The nuclear supermarket that the Khan network operated over more than a decade covered a huge stage, from Asia to Europe and the Middle East.
Middlemen working for the network bought parts from at least half a dozen countries - including Japan, Malaysia, South Africa, Germany and at least two other European states. These components were ostensibly intended for industrial purposes but were, in fact, used to make gas centrifuges.
Through its suppliers, the network offered its customers - who are known to have been Libya, Iran and North Korea - a comprehensive service, which included advanced centrifuge machines, components and designs, as well as training for operating the machines.
The Khan network was exposed earlier this year when the newly penitent Gaddafi agreed to abandon Libya's weapons of mass destruction in exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions and a return to respectability within the community of nations.
As part of the agreement, which was negotiated by the US and Britain, the Libyans revealed their connection to the Khan network. Not only had they received centrifuge components, nuclear technology and related know-how, but Libyan officials also reported that they had actually received blueprints for making a nuclear bomb.
The first significant clue to a Syrian connection came from US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton when he expressed concern that, in addition to Iran, Libya and North Korea, "several other" customers had sought to acquire the bomb from the Khan network.
"There is more out there than we can discuss publicly," he told the United Nations in April. "It is one of the reasons why the depth of our concern about the international black market in weapons of mass destruction is as substantial as it is."
Proliferation experts are now convinced they know the identity of at least three of the "several other" customers that were referred to by Bolton: Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Khan, the former special scientific advisor to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, is thought to have struck a deal with his one-time boss when he confessed to selling advanced centrifuge technology and expertise to other countries.
Analysts believe that in exchange for Khan admitting to dealings with Iran, Libya and North Korea, Musharraf agreed not to reveal the identity of his other major customers.
Bolton alluded to his frustration over the issue when he said, "If part of that network is exposed, you don't really know whether you've exposed all of it or not, or brought it down."
There are particularly strong grounds to suspect that Syria was part of the Khan network. According to Western sources quoted by The Los Angeles Times, Khan himself visited Syria several times, and then went on to meet secretly with senior Syrian officials in Iran.
The sources say Khan traveled to Damascus in late 1997 and again in early 1998, ostensibly to give lectures on nuclear materials. But in 2001, Syria is said to have become so concerned that its contacts with Khan would be exposed that it switched the venue of future meetings to Iran.
The Pakistani scientist was accompanied to the meetings in Iran by three colleagues from his research laboratory in Pakistan. These meetings, say the sources, were aimed at helping Syria to develop nuclear weapons.
But it may not have been purely security reasons that prompted the Syrians to shift the talks to Iran.
A senior Arab political source recently told the Post he doubted Syria could fund an independent nuclear weapons program. He did, however, consider it likely that Syria and Iran might be involved in a joint nuclear project - with Iran bankrolling Syrian scientists or Iranian scientists actually working on a joint nuclear program in Syria.
In addition to the nuclear-related know-how, the Khan network is also believed to have provided Syria with centrifuges for producing enriched uranium, the key ingredient for manufacturing nuclear bombs.
Concern about Syria's nuclear ambitions was heightened, according to the sources, when an experimental American electronic eavesdropping device picked up distinctive signals indicating that the Syrians had not only acquired the centrifuges but were actually operating them.
Even before the extent of the Khan network was disclosed, the CIA had expressed concern about Syria's interest in nuclear weapons and the possibility that it was attempting to acquire the relevant technology and know-how on the nuclear black market.
An unclassified CIA report to Congress in mid-2003 noted that "broader access to foreign expertise provides opportunities to expand its indigenous capabilities and we are looking at Syrian nuclear intentions with growing concern."
There is also continuing suspicion that Syria might have been used as a haven to hide Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. A report prepared for the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a US-based information center and lobby group headed by former senator Sam Nunn and media mogul Ted Turner, notes that Syria's Scientific Research Institute "has allegedly taken in Iraqi scientists prior to the recent Gulf War." According to a report by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, in December 2002 an Italian newspaper had cited an Iraqi officer as saying that Syria had allowed Iraq to store its weapons of mass destruction in Syrian research centers. These allegations, it added, were never confirmed.
STUNG BY apparently false intelligence assessments about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, officials are responding with understandable caution when assessing the scope of a possible Syrian nuclear threat.
The State Department recently noted that the US government has "consistently outlined our concerns with regard to Syria's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. We are very interested to learn the scope of the AQ Khan network, but we are not in a position to say with certainty that Syria has centrifuges." Some Western officials remain agnostic about Syria's link with the Khan network. They caution that the link is not conclusive and that there is no hard evidence to show that Syria acquired nuclear technology from Pakistan - even though the signals of functioning centrifuges picked up by the American eavesdropping device were, apparently, quite distinct.
But, along with the electronic intercepts, there is another curious discrepancy in Syrian behavior: It is standard practice for Syrian officials to deny accusations that their country is pursuing nuclear weapons. However, when written questions on the issue were presented to the Syrian representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna earlier this year, he simply failed to respond.
Despite all this, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei remains on the forefront of the skeptics. Khan's confession, he concedes, "raises more questions than it answers." But there is, he insists, no evidence to implicate Syria in nuclear skullduggery. And he appears to discount evidence of active centrifuges in Syria: "We don't have super hi-tech detectors," he said, "and if somebody detected something they'd better come to us. We are the ones who can clarify fact from fiction." The clincher for ElBaradei appeared to be Syria's willingness to permit IAEA inspectors to visit its facilities in order to verify the nature of its nuclear activities.
Ironically, Syria's first fully operational nuclear reactor was installed with the assistance of the IAEA at the Der al-Hadjar Nuclear Research Center, some 30 km. from Damascus. The IAEA has also assisted Syria with numerous other nuclear-related projects, including uranium exploration, uranium extraction from phosphoric acid, isotope production, the construction of a cyclotron facility, the development of nuclear research laboratories and preparation for a nuclear power program.
According to the NTI report, Syria's nuclear facility includes a 30kW miniature neutron source reactor, which was supplied by China and modeled after the Canadian Slowpoke reactor. China also supplied Syria with 980 grams of 90 percent enriched fuel for the facility.
The main function of the facility is said to be neutron activation analysis, training and small-scale radioisotope production, and the NTI report quotes some analysts as saying the facility is unsuitable for weapons production.
But the Der al-Hadjar center is apparently not the only nuclear facility in Syria. As part of the Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement signed by Russia and Syria in the late Nineties, Russia is committed to building two more nuclear reactors for Syria.
What remains unclear is the nature of the planned reactors. While one source quoted by the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin asserts that the reactors will be used to generate electricity, another claims that the agreement entails the construction of a light water research reactor, which is unsuitable for electricity production.
In addition to cooperation with Russia, Syria is also reported to have received nuclear-related assistance from a variety of countries, including Belgium, China, Germany and the former Soviet Union. It has also solicited assistance over the years from several other countries, including Argentina, India and Italy.
The nuclear marketplace is shrouded in a dense cloud of secrecy and ambiguity. Technology and know-how that could be applied to the generation of power for civilian use could also metastasize into the equipment for producing the most devastating weaponry.
The grim fact remains that if those US intercepts are accurate and if Syria, with or without the Iranians, has acquired uranium-enriching centrifuges from the Khan network, it has taken a huge step toward obtaining the weapons-grade material it will need to develop nuclear weapons.
Such an event will have drastic consequences for the strategic dynamic of the region.
A 25-year-long effort Syria signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1969, primarily to benefit from the political and technical advantages that derive from such compliance.
Ten years later, Syria established its own Atomic Energy Commission in order to manage IAEA assistance programs and to plan for the eventual development of a home-grown nuclear power program.
In 1983, the IAEA helped Syria to establish an analytical laboratory that was equipped with systems for atomic spectrometry and various other experiments. As part of the project, five Syrian scientists were trained in the US, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Austria.
Also in 1983, Syrian and Soviet scientists conducted a joint study on the construction of a nuclear power reactor in Syria as part of an IAEA cooperative assistance project to help Syria understand the requirements for developing and maintaining a nuclear program.
According to a report by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Syria is unlikely to have attempted to build nuclear weapons, but it notes that "there have been rumors that it might be interested in obtaining such weapons to deter an Israeli nuclear weapons threat." It also points to a 1986 comment by Syrian Chief of Staff General Hihmet al-Siabi, who suggested that Syria would strive to achieve strategic parity with Israel, including nuclear parity.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Syria began to investigate its potential for indigenous nuclear resources and to experiment in extracting uranium from its vast phosphoric rock reserves.
In 1986, the IAEA and Syria's Atomic Energy Commission built what is described as a "micro-plant" at the General Phosphate Company Plant in Homs to study the process of uranium extraction from phosphoric acid.
THIS PLANT was intended to be the forerunner of a commercial plant if Syria obtained a nuclear power reactor that would require regular refueling. In 1996, Syria began developing a plant to recover uranium from tri-superphosphates using a similar technology. That facility came on-line in 2001.
In 1991, China started constructing Syria's 30kW miniature neutron source reactor at the Der al-Hadjar Nuclear Research Center. That facility went critical in 1996 and became fully operational in 1998. The reactor gives Syria the capability to produce neutrons for nuclear analysis, isotopes for industrial applications, and radioisotopes for training purposes. According to the Monterey Institute, it is unsuitable for weapons production.
In 1997, the IAEA approved a technical assistance project to provide Syria with a cyclotron facility at the Nuclear Medicine Center in Damascus. The Cyclon-30 cyclotron, provided by Belgium's Ion Beam Applications, is the same model as the cyclotron in Iran which is suspected of being used to enrich uranium. The current status of the Syrian facility is unknown.
The Monterey Institute reports that in recent years Syria has "continued to develop its nuclear research facilities and other facilities to help manage its nuclear material." It notes that Syria has entered into new cooperation agreements with several countries, notably Russia. A memorandum of understanding was concluded in 1998 between Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy and Syria's Atomic Energy Commission.
In 2003, Russian and Syrian officials were reported to be still negotiating over the construction of a nuclear complex that would include a nuclear power plant and a seawater atomic desalination plant.
An indication of the opaque nature of the nuclear business was provided when Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy confirmed that the discussions were taking place, while Russia's Foreign Ministry flatly denied any discussions had occurred.