from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Assad’s Nuclear Ambitions

November 1, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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The extent of the Assad regime’s nuclear ambitions became even clearer this week. It turns out that in addition to buying a plutonium production reactor from North Korea, Syria was also working on a uranium reactor procured from the Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan.

Thus Syria was trying two separate routes to get a bomb.

This revelation is further evidence of why the United States and all of Syria’s neighbors will benefit by the demise of the Assad regime. Far from being a quiet little dictatorship that did not bother its neighbors, Syria under Bashar al-Assad intervened repeated and murderously in Lebanon, did all it could to help jihadis kill Americans in Iraq, and had under way a dual-track nuclear program that would have been tremendously destabilizing to the region had it not been stopped.  Given how little was known about the plutonium reactor until 2007, and about the uranium reactor until much more recently, it is possible that there are other sites and other aspects of the program.  We’ll find it all out, and put an end to it all, only when Syria is free of the Assad regime and has a new government that is fully cooperative with the IAEA.

The discovery of additional Assad regime nuclear work should put an end to the foolish arguments that that regime was a source of stability in the region. We’ve heard them again this year: as one Washington Post story from May of this year reported,

“the fall of President Bashar al-Assad would unleash a cataclysm of chaos, sectarian strife and extremism that spreads far beyond its borders, threatening…the entire balance of power in the volatile region, analysts and experts say.”

In 2008, the then UK Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, visited Damascus and said "Syria has a big potential role to play in stability in the Middle East….”

A better description of the Assad regime was offered in 2009 by the great scholar Fouad Ajami:

This was less an organized government than a huge criminal and financial enterprise held together by a security apparatus built around the children and in-laws of Hafez al-Assad and the intelligence barons. In Damascus, it is the rule of the Sopranos.

But the Sopranos had only small arms. The Assads were often thought to have limited ambitions but now we see that they had under way an extremely dangerous nuclear program. The end of the regime will end that activity once and for all, and it is yet another reason to hope that moment comes soon.

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