Syria referred to UNSC

Posted by Andreas Persbo (andreas.persbo) on Jul 14 2011
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament

Mikael Shirazi, London

After the director-general of the International Atomic Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano, produced his report on the suspected Syrian reactor in late May, VERTIC’s Andreas Persbo described the three likely options for what could happen next. The first involved DG Amano calling for a so-called ‘Special Inspection’ in the country under its 1992 Safeguards Agreement (Article 72, INFCIRC/407). The second option was for the IAEA Board of Governors to skip this step and put forward a resolution finding Syria in non-compliance with its safeguards obligations, subsequently referring Syria direct to the United Nations Security Council for further action. A third alternative was simply to do nothing. On 9 June the Board took option two, the first such referral since Iran’s case was sent to the United Nations five years ago. The Security Council will now discuss the matter, and probably soon.

Report and Refer
The suspected reactor in question at the ‘Dair Alzour’ site was, Syria claims, an unused military facility under construction. It was destroyed by Israeli military jets in 2007. Outlining allegations that it was rather more likely to have been a nuclear reactor configured to produce weapons-capable plutonium under construction, and that it was being built with North Korean help, the DG’s report focused on three main points.

The facility was ‘comparable to those of gas-cooled graphite moderated reactors’ of the North Korean type and supported by an infrastructure configured for such a reactor.

Second, environmental samples taken from the site by IAEA inspectors in June 2008 also found particles of processed natural uranium. The Director-General dismissed Syria’s claims that these originated from the Israeli munitions that destroyed the site based on an analysis of their ‘morphology and distribution’.Finally, the report highlighted Syria’s repeated denial of requests for access to relevant sites.

The report concluded that the Dair Alzour facility was indeed ‘very likely’ a nuclear reactor, but stopped short of making any further recommendations for action. The decision for what would result from these conclusions was thus left with the IAEA Board of Governors, in which opinion was markedly split. In the end, the 35-member Board found Syria in non-compliance with its international obligations with 17 countries voting for referral to the UNSC, 6 voting against, 11 abstaining, and one country absent from the proceedings.

The move to formally find Syria in non-compliance with its safeguards obligations and to refer the case to the UN Security Council was spearheaded by the United States, whose intelligence services were first to allege that the Dair Alzour site was nuclear in nature and North Korean in design. The US resolution in the Board was co-sponsored by 12 other countries (many European states plus Australia, Canada, and South Korea) and supported in the actual vote by four more: Cameroon, Japan, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The 11 abstentions included Argentina, Brazil, Chile, India, South Africa and Peru.

Importantly though, six countries voted against the resolution—including Russia and China, both of whom hold permanent seats—with associated veto power—on the Security Council.

Nonetheless, US Ambassador to the IAEA Glyn Davies said that the vote was a necessary outcome of Syria’s actions, which ‘represents one of the most serious safeguards violations possible’, whilst Obama administration press secretary Jay Carney lauded the move as a ‘significant action by the international community to uphold the non-proliferation rules of the road.’ Neither Russia nor China shared this assessment, with a Russian statement prior to the vote claiming the desert facility ‘no longer exists and therefore poses no threat to international peace and security’, and China claiming the move was ‘unnecessary.’

Analysts have interpreted these divisions to conclude that while it forms a definite rebuke, the referral will not lead to UN sanctions against Syria in the near future.

One of Three Options
Why was the option of finding Syria in non-compliance and referring the case directly to the Security Council taken over the other alternatives of calling for a Special Inspection or doing nothing?

Doing nothing appears to have been ruled out early on in the discussions, as the atmosphere in the Board of Governors was not quite so debilitated by fracture and division that action became impossible. The feeling that the credibility of the non-proliferation regime would be at stake was clear in US Ambassador Davies’s description of censure as a ‘necessary and appropriate’ step: ‘It is not appropriate behaviour for a country to build a secret nuclear reactor... without telling anyone and one that had no civilian purpose. That's why we had to do what we did.’

Whilst there was a clear division among Western and developed nations on one hand and the states of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) on the other, support for the move under US leadership was solid. Indeed, the US was prepared to adjust its strategy and put forward a resolution finding Syria in non-compliance without direct referral to the Security Council, but found this kind of dilution of action unnecessary as it had enough support to go ahead with the direct referral.

Whilst there was enough momentum to avoid inaction, it seems as though there was no such desire within the IAEA Secretariat to call for a Special Inspection. Such an initiative should come from the Director-General, and it should also have backing within the Board.

Support for such an inspection had come from the US, with Ambassador Davies in August 2010 claiming it was ‘something that needs to be considered.’ Several Western analysts also lent support in recent months to the Special Inspection option. David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security asked, ‘If not now, when?’ The former IAEA Deputy Director-General Olli Heinonen asserted that it was ‘the agency's obligation [to] use all the tools at its disposal in a timely manner to fulfill its mandate’. Experts James Acton, Mark Fitzpatrick and Pierre Goldschmidt together forcefully proclaimed Syria to be ‘the textbook definition of a case in which a special inspection is merited.’

However, as Andreas Persbo has previously described, problems surrounding the Special Inspection have instilled a reticence within the Agency to make such a request, which ‘is likely to go unheeded’ by Syria. Some have argued that such a display of non-cooperation would undermine the safeguards regime, and it is therefore better to simply avoid the possibility.

In addition, the practical requirement for a solid amount of support from the Board for a Special Inspection request may have upped the stakes to an unacceptable degree for DG Amano, as Mark Hibbs has described. Amano was installed in his directorship after a divided vote in the Board with a split between Western states (who supported him) and NAM states (who supported his South African rival Abdul Samad Minty), and it seems that the risk of further division constituted a threat to the DG’s bridge-building efforts. As it turned out, political support for a non-compliance resolution and a referral to the Security Council existed without any attempt at instituting a Special Inspection beforehand.

However, the argument that the referral would have greater weight in the aftermath of a Syrian refusal for a Special Inspection has since been made. After the vote, US Ambassador Davies gave subtle indications that this would have been his country’s preferred route, whilst Olli Heinonen considered that ‘the case would have been clearer’ had such a step been taken.

It seems that the referral constituted a “middle of the road” option acceptable to enough stakeholders to pass through. DG Amano could avoid unpleasant and damaging political divisions undermining his leadership. Western states could make clear their disapproval of Syrian actions and could claim to have maintained credibility for the non-proliferation regime. Russia and China could express their dissatisfaction of a non-compliance vote perceived to be driven by US-intelligence resources and interests, comfortable in the knowledge that no further action was likely to be taken courtesy of their Security Council veto.

Last changed: Jul 14 2011 at 12:24 PM

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