Nuclear Weapons Programs
"When the facts change,
I change my mind.
What do you do, sir?"
- John Maynard Keynes
"The wicked flee when no man pursueth:
but the righteous are bold as a lion."
- Proverbs 28:1
It appeared that the Syrian nuclear program came as a surprise to both the Israelis and the Americans. Neither had previously acted or spoken as though Syria had nuclear ambitions, and both acted very peculiar after an Israeli air strike on a target in Syria, details of which were sparse until a 2008 report issued by the United States concerning the incident. This would have explained Israeli silence, namely that Syria had been working on it for years and the Israelis had not noticed until very recently. It would also have explained the complete incoherence of the US leakint in the weeks after the event. If the US had already had a file on the place, the place name would have been released quickly, along with a coherent explanation for what purposes it was believed to be used, which was not the case. The sequence of events in the news coverage suggested that the US took the better part of September and October 2007 to figure out what was going on and figure out how their intelligence services had been caught unawares.
Syria was a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Syria had a standard safeguards agreement with the IAEA but, like Iran, had not yet signed or even begun negotiations on the IAEA Additional Protocol. The Additional Protocol was an important tool that, if fully implemented, could strengthen the IAEA's investigative powers to verify compliance with NPT safeguards obligations and provides the IAEA with the ability to act quickly on any indicators of undeclared nuclear materials, facilities and activities. Syria had historically called for an area free of all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.
Although Syria had long been cited as posing a nuclear proliferation risk, prior to 2007 the country seemed to have been too strapped for cash to get far. Syria allegedly began a military nuclear program in 1979 and had not provided the IAEA with full information on all its nuclear activities. Syria had claimed that it was interested in nuclear research for medical rather than military purposes, but Israel and the United States opposed sales of a reactor to Syria on the grounds that it would serve as an important step toward the building of a nuclear weapon.
The United States was concerned about Syria's nuclear Research and Development (R&D) program and continued to watch for any signs of nuclear weapons activity or foreign assistance that could facilitate the production of Syrian nuclear weapons. Syria had made efforts to acquire dual-use technologies, including some through the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) Technical Cooperation program. These technologies could have been applied to a nuclear weapons program.
In a speech to the Heritage Foundation on 6 May 2002 , Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John R. Bolton grouped Syria with Libya and Cuba as rogue states that supported international terrorism and were pursuing the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). On 9 October 2002, Undersecretary Bolton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "We remain very concerned that nuclear and missile programs of Iran and others, including Syria, continue to receive the benefits of Russian technology and expertise." The allusion to nuclear programs prompted a complaint from the Syrian Foreign Ministry, which averred that Syria had been calling for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East since 1987.
As of July 2003, the authoritative Nuclear Threat Initiative website stated that "Overall, Syria is a country with limited nuclear resources and capabilities. Most of these are focused on research and development and the practical application of radioisotopes for use in industry. It is unclear how many nuclear facilities Syria actually has, but they all appear to be meant for the purpose of advancing the cause of nuclear science and industry in that country... Although there are some areas of uncertainty surrounding Syria's nuclear program, the program appears to be rudimentary at best and focused on civilian and scientific applications."
A 2004 study for the Swedish Defense Ministry" concluded "In regards to nuclear capacity, all available information indicates that Syria today focuses its nuclear ambitions in the civil sector. Syria does not have any military nuclear program ambitions, and the lack of economical and technical resources needed for such a program are vital arguments behind this conclusion."
At the 11 January 2007 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee hearing on Current and Projected National Security Threats to the United States Statement for the Record of Lieutenant General Michael D. Maples, U.S. Army Director, Defense Intelligence Agency mentions Syria in fourteen instances, but makes no mention of concerns about Syrian nuclear activities, saying instead that "Syria has pursued development of a strategic deterrent principally based on ballistic missile, chemical, and, to a limited extent, biological warfare programs, as a means of countering Israel's conventional force superiority. ..."Several Syrian official statements flatly denied US government revelations of Syrian-N.Korean nuclear cooperation, the majority of which had appeared in the Arab press. In a 24 April 2008 CNN interview and a Washington Post article, the Syrian Ambassador in Washington accused the U.S. of making false claims of Syrian-N.Korean cooperation to justify Israel's September 6 military strikes against Syria. The Syrian Embassy in Washington issued an 24 April 2008 statement regretting and denouncing "the campaign of false allegations that the current United States administration continually launches against Syria, claiming the presence of nuclear activity." The statement accused the US government of "misguiding the U.S. Congress" in order to justify Israel's September 6, 2007 bombing raid.
An 25 April 2008 SANA press release repeated these themes, quoting an unnamed senior official as saying, "This administration as it seemed was a party in carrying out the raid, and it is clear that such a move by the American administration comes in the framework of the negotiations connected with the Korean nuclear file." In a 26 April 2008 press statement carried by al Arabiya, Syria's UN Permrep Bashar al-Jafari said his country would fully cooperate with the IAEA in the ongoing investigation of his country's nuclear activities. In a 26 April 2008 report by KUNA, Ambassador Moustafa pledged Syria's intent to "deconstruct" the American allegations, contending "We are not in this business now and we do not see Syria acquiring nuclear technology in the foreseeable future." He also added that one purpose of General Hayden's briefings was to undermine members of Congress who favored restoring U.S.-Syrian relations.
In a 27 April 2008 statement to London Quds Press, Chairman of the Syrian Assembly International Affairs Committee, Sulayman Haddad said "We suspect the intentions of the United States. It has massed its forces in the region for several months. It wants to achieve its aims in Lebanon through various means and it wants to emerge from its predicament in Iraq." Haddad also suggested that the Syrian-N. Korean revelations were part of a U.S.-Israeli plot to "mislead international public opinion," and he questioned the seriousness of reports of an Israeli announcement that the GOI desired to evacuate the Golan.
The Syrian Government daily "Tishreen" ran a 26 April 2008 article rejecting US government revelations of Syrian-N.Korean nuclear cooperation and accusing the U.S. of attempting to undermine Turkish-brokered talks between Israel and Syria. Government-owned "Al Thawrah" published two articles on April 27 accusing the U.S. of mounting a campaign of "lies" in a likely replay of the 2003 Iraq scenario. The author called on the international community to respond in a human and effective manner and prevent this "farce, the price of which the world is paying with its security, stability, and peace." In the second article, the author accuses the U.S. of fabricating lies to hide its "continuous failure in all the alternative plans they have so far devised."
Some independent observers thought it was all but inconceivable that Syria would seek to construct a nuclear reactor in cooperation with North Korea, knowing full well its military activities were under constant surveillance by Israel and others. The re-opening of the Syrian nuclear file came at an bad time for the Syrian regime. President Asad had survived the Arab League summit and was trying to improve Syria's image by traveling in the region. Asad and his circle appeared to be struggling to find a coherent public relations strategy. For the time being, the MFA and others were attempting to refute U.S. information directly, though Western media coverage of Syria's side of the story appeared to be notably thin.
According to the IAEA, by 2012 Syria had up to 50 tons of natural uranium, enough material for three to five bombs once the enrichment procedure is completed. The Institute for Science and International Security expressed its concern in September 2013. "This large stock of natural uranium metal poses nuclear proliferation risks," the institute wrote. "It could be obtained by organizations such as Hezbollah or al-Qaida or undeclared nuclear programs of states such as Iran."
In 2015 Der Spiegel reported on an underground location just west of the city of Qusayr code-named Zamzam, some two kilometers from the border with Lebanon. Construction of the facility began in 2009, disguised from the very beginning. Excavated material was disposed of at various sites, apparently to make it difficult for observers to tell how deeply they were digging. According to tradition, Zamzam is the well God created in the desert for Abraham's wife and their son Ishmael.