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Nuclear Questions Aimed at Syria

Author: Eben Kaplan
September 26, 2007


Shortly after North Korea blasted its way into the ranks of the “nuclear club” last October, President Bush issued a stern warning about the prospect of Pyongyang as a proliferator: “The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable.” Nearly a year later, a mysterious Israeli air strike (NYT) on Syria September 6 raised speculation that North Korea may be doing just that. The United States has not commented on the issue; President Bush repeatedly refused to discuss the matter when pressed by reporters.

What occurred on September 6 remains unclear, but the most prominent (WSJ) theory suggests Israel destroyed a nascent Syrian nuclear facility built with North Korean assistance. According to a widely cited account in the Times of London quoting Israeli defense sources, Israeli commandos nabbed nuclear material from a secret Syrian compound in advance of the strike to prove its North Korean origin. The air strike went ahead, the report claims, after the evidence satisfied skeptics in Washington. In an interview with Newsweek, Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha claims the Israeli strike fell on “wasteland” and calls allegations of North Korean nuclear support “ridiculous and untrue.” Little public evidence exists to confirm any account of the incident. For its part, Israel has remained tight-lipped about the air raid, in stark contrast to its jubilation after a similar raid (BBC) in 1981 on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor. The United States, which offered early confirmation that a strike of some kind occurred, had said little since, though the Washington Post reports the two nations shared intelligence on the alleged Syrian site in advance of the strike.  

With the specter of nuclear terrorism a principal U.S. security concern, the prospect of Syria—a designated state sponsor of terrorism —entering the nuclear fray is worrisome. The Proliferation Security Initiative, a multilateral program aimed at identifying and intercepting illegal nuclear shipments, is designed to prevent such transfers. But in a world awash (NYT) in nuclear material, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonproliferation advocacy group, warns these efforts may be insufficient (PDF).

The lack of information on the air strike, meanwhile, has prompted some to question media characterizations of a nuclear connection. Joseph Cirincione, a proliferation expert at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, remains skeptical of reporting on Syria’s nuclear ambitions (BBC), likening it to the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Intelligence experts concede their ability to gauge the nuclear capabilities of other states—for instance, Iran—may be little better than their ability in 2003 to gauge that of Iraq. But others see this as an argument for vigilance rather than caution. In an interview with Foreign Policy, John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, offers a bleak assessment of diplomatic efforts to end either North Korea’s or Iran’s nuclear programs.

With Israel-Syria relations still tense after last year’s fighting in Lebanon, the air strike also raises the fears of an armed showdown between the longtime foes. CFR Director of Studies Gary Samore explains in a recent interview that a nuclear program would provide Damascus with an effective deterrent against a hostile and militarily superior Israel, but notes that at least until now, Syria has seemed content with the biological and chemical weapons it already possesses. Meanwhile, the Israeli military remains braced for war with Syria (JPost), even weeks after the initial air raid. In a bid to diffuse some regional tensions, the United States has extended Syria an invitation (LAT) to a Middle East peace conference slated for later this fall.

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