Syrian “Nukes”? Not So Fast…

November 4th, 2007 - by admin

Noah Shachtman / Wired Blog – 2007-11-04 01:43:26

(October 27, 2007 ) — The New York Times‘ Mark Mazzetti and Bill Broad have two very good stories on the suspect site in Syria — one placing the leaks about the site in context of Administration internal debates over North Korea; the other reporting on new satellite imagery showing that North Korea has wiped clean the site.

I am sitting in an airport, but I thought a few points bear mentioning:

• Syria has long expressed a desire to have a nuclear reactor; North Korea would probably sell a reactor if the price was right. On face, the story is not implausible.

• The pictures showed a large building near a river. That’s about it. If the building was a reactor, it was very far from completion. Absent reliable human intelligence, I see nothing that conclusively demonstrates the building was a reactor although IAEA inspections would have been decisive on this point.

• Assuming it was a reactor, it is much too early to make design determinations based on imagery. Overhead identifications of reactors can, and are, often wrong as they were in the cases of Baotou — a fuel fabrication facility in China mistaken for a plutonium production reactor — and the gigantic North Korean hole in the ground that is Kumchang-ri. Intelligence Community estimates of the size and type of the Yongbyon reactor, at a comparable stage, were incorrect.

• The people leaking are those dissatisfied with US policy. “A sharp debate is under way in the Bush administration,” Mazetti and Helene Cooper reported, about “whether intelligence that Israel presented months ago to the White House … was conclusive enough to justify military action by Israel and a possible rethinking of American policy toward the two nations.”

Obviously, that rethinking hasn’t happened yet. The people who lost that debate are leaking national security information, appealing to the press. That is precisely why Hoekstra (R-MI) and Ros-Lehtinen called for more information — this is about North Korea, not Syria.

• We haven’t heard from the people who, as Mazetti and Cooper reported, were “cautious about fully endorsing Israeli warnings” or “remain unconvinced that a nascent Syrian nuclear program could pose an immediate threat.” They might have important information to add, were they willing to leak it.

• Syria has wiped the site clean — a move that The Institute for Science and International Security’s David Albright and Paul Brannan note “dramatically complicates any inspection of the facilities.” What ever Damascus may have been doing, we’re much less likely to know, now.

• One of the best reasons for pressing for inspections at the site, rather than bombing it, is to get answers to the questions about what the site was and how it got there. After Israeli bombed Osirak in 1981, Iraq simply continued its nuclear weapons program in secret. It was not the bombing of Osirak, but rather UN inspections, which eventually disarmed Saddam Hussein.

In short, we don’t know what the site was, what (or who) survived the strike, and where it is now.

— Jeffrey Lewis, cross-posted at

UPDATE: Okay, now things are getting really weird. “The mystery surrounding the construction of what might have been a nuclear reactor in Syria deepened yesterday,” according to the NYT, “when a company released a satellite photo showing that the main building was well under way in September 2003 — four years before Israeli jets bombed it.”

The long genesis is likely to raise questions about whether the Bush administration overlooked a nascent atomic threat in Syria while planning and executing a war in Iraq, which was later found to have no active nuclear program…

In the time before the Iraq war, President Bush and his senior advisers sounded many alarms about Baghdad’s reconstituting its nuclear program. But they have never publicly discussed what many analysts say appears to have been a long-running nuclear effort next door.

Yesterday independent analysts, examining the latest satellite image, suggested that work on the site might have begun around 2001, and the senior intelligence official agreed with that analysis. That early date is potentially significant in terms of North Korea’s suspected aid to Syria, suggesting that North Korea could have begun its assistance in the late 1990s…

Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the New America Foundation in Washington, said it was surprising from the photos how little progress had been made at the site between 2003 and 2007.

But Mr. Lewis said it was ironic that Syria might have been trying to build a nuclear program just as the United States was invading Iraq in the fear that Iraq was developing nuclear arms.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.