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The Syrian Nuclear Puzzle

Author: Greg Bruno
May 1, 2008

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On matters of nonproliferation, policymakers and weapons inspectors share a disdain for secrets. So perhaps it was inevitable that a seven-month delay (NYT) in disclosing details of an Israeli air raid on a Syrian nuclear reactor—built, allegedly, with North Korean assistance—would spark outrage from Capitol Hill and the UN’s nuclear agency. Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees scolded (AFP) the Bush administration for its delay in briefing Congress on the September 2007 strike. Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, said he “deplores the fact” information was not provided to his agency in a timely fashion, as required under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. President Bush, meanwhile, defended the late disclosure as necessary to avoid sparking a larger regional conflict.  

Beyond the dispute over timing is the broader question of motivation. At a news conference on April 29, Bush said the release was aimed as a warning to nations pondering the spread of nuclear weapons; he singled out Syria, North Korea, and Iran. A senior administration official, detailing the sequence of events in a background briefing for reporters on April 24, went further. The official said the disclosure was intended “to advance a number of policy objectives,” from serving as a potential trump card in negotiations with Pyongyang over its own nuclear program (AP), to compelling the international community to take action against Iran for its suspected nuclear-weapons development.

But some observers see other motives in pulling back Syria’s nuclear curtain. Andrew Semmel, the former top State Department official for nonproliferation, tells Voice of America the release may have been aimed at “putting a positive spin” on intelligence that was bound to leak. Dar Al-Hayat columnist Elias Harfoush sees the disclosure as an attempt by Washington to interrupt talks between Syria and Israel over the disputed Golan Heights. The intelligence briefing came amid reports of a potential breakthrough (Reuters) between the two sides. Still others question the veracity of the nuclear plant claim. The allegations were equated in some quarters (al-Jazeera) to intelligence presented to the UN Security Council by then Secretary of State Colin Powell in the run-up to the Iraq war. Nuclear weapons experts David Albright and Paul Brannan don’t doubt the photos’ veracity but question whether the plant was part of an “active nuclear weapons program” (PDF).

The situation puts a new spotlight on the troubled U.S.-Syria relationship. In recent years Damascus and Washington have sparred over the Arab-Israeli conflict; Syria’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon; and claims that foreign fighters in Iraq have entered the war zone via Syria. The Bush administration has raised concern about Syrian weapons development in the recent past. Damascus has rejected such charges before and denies (AFP) the targeted complex in the most recent case was nuclear in nature.

But U.S. claims of Syrian support for terrorists are decades old; the U.S. government first listed Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979. The State Department’s most recent annual report on global terrorism accuses Syria of providing material and political support to Palestinian terrorist groups, and suggests official involvement in the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recalled the U.S. ambassador to Syria following the murder, although Syria maintains a diplomatic mission in Washington. The United States has also sought to use economic leverage to compel Syria to cut ties with terrorist groups.

It is uncertain how stepped up U.S. pressure will influence Syrian behavior. The American Enterprise Institute’s David Frum says reckless regimes can’t always be reasoned with (National Post). Jeremy M. Sharp, a Middle East analyst for the Congressional Research Service, however, writes in a new assessment of U.S.-Syria relations that “analysts are divided” (PDF) over whether sanctions have been effective in achieving U.S. goals*. Trade with Syria is already minimal, Sharp notes, though it is increasing. And the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), which has published a series of reports on Syrian politics and regional relations, has found that sanctions could embolden the ruling party. The most direct route to change, two USIP scholars say, lies with Syria’s oppositionists.

*Editor's note: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized conclusions drawn by the Congressional Research Service on the effectiveness of sanctions in altering Syrian behavior.

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