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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Analysis: The Syrian Nuclear Puzzle

Council on Foreign Relations

May 1, 2008
Author: Greg Bruno

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.

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