The Syria Probe

Posted by Andreas Persbo (andreas.persbo) on May 26 2011
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament
Andreas Persbo, Brussels and London
Director-General Amano has recently given an interview stating that Syria may indeed have built a nuclear reactor. In an interview with Reuters, he has at a minimum said that he has ‘information that indicates that this is the case’. Some speculated that this means the Secretariat is preparing to have the country reported to the UN Security Council. The Agency’s recently released report on the country (GOV/2011/30), however, is ambiguous.
Most in the non-proliferation community know the story by now. Israel bombed a site in September 2007. Suspicions soon arose that the site might have hosted a graphite-moderated natural-uranium fuelled reactor. Eventually, The International Atomic Energy Agency, which at first did not comment on the event, was allowed to look into the matter in June 2008. This was long after the Syrian authorities—in literal cover-up—had demolished the ruins, removed all debris, sent it off or buried it and scraped away some soil to top it all off.
The Agency’s inspectors, strolling around the site in the hot Syrian summer, took samples from an area just outside the cleared site. The results were telling: particles of anthropogenic (processed) natural uranium, graphite, and stainless steel. The presence of this material strongly suggested the vanished site had been a reactor, and possibly that fuel was present. The latter is uncertain, as Syria has no known fuel fabrication plant, but possible. Israeli officials, speaking to VERTIC on condition of anonymity, have all stressed the reactor was close to operational status, and have suggested that fuel was ready to be loaded into the reactor. The Syrians have claimed the natural uranium comes from Israeli munitions.
The IAEA has tried to engage with the Syrian government. Letters have been exchanged but the country’s authorities have not been forthcoming. The government has stonewalled any requests about, among other matters, technical documentation related to the construction of the building.
Syria’s attempt to cover up has complicated on-site inspections. However, the overhead imagery, released several years ago, and supplemented by authenticated ground images of the site, together forms a convincing body of evidence. This body has been convincing enough for many to argue that the burden of proof now lies with the Syrian government.
The latest IAEA report now firmly puts the onus on the Syrians. A careful analysis of overhead imagery, a technical analysis of the water piping arrangement supporting the building as well as an assessment of electrical supplies, all points, in the IAEA’s assessment, to the building being a clandestinely built reactor.
As for the uranium, the IAEA ‘has not been able to determine the origin of the particles’. Many suggestions have been offered, including the supply of fresh fuel from North Korea. But so far, few convincing hypothesises has been brought to the table. The existence of an undeclared fuel manufacturing plant cannot be ruled out.
On balance, the IAEA infers the reactor was ‘very likely’ a nuclear reactor, and so should have been declared to the Agency under articles 42 and 43 of Syria’s safeguards agreement.
The problem with very likely violations
The language in the Director-General’s report puts the Board of Governors in a difficult place. The report does not contain any firm recommendations—it does not even firmly state that the Secretariat finds itself unable to verify that all nuclear material in the country remains in peaceful use. Instead, the secretariat simple notes the ‘very likely’ former presence of a clandestine nuclear facility in one of its member states. Governors wishing to argue for stronger measures against Syria will find them faced with a predictable counter-argument. A violation has not been confirmed, after all, it is simply likely. ‘And by the way’, the opposing side might argue, ‘the report contains nothing on whether nuclear material has been diverted’. Most governors will probably scratch their heads, thinking the report does not add much to the state of knowledge, or rather lack of knowledge, about Syria’s nuclear programme.
It is now up to the Board to assess the Director-General’s report and decide what to do with it. In my mind, there are three choices: call a special inspection, refer the case direct to the UN Security Council, or do nothing.
Calling the inspection…
Some have been calling on the IAEA to call for a special inspection in Syria, which undoubtably would raise the diplomatic stakes (see Special Inspections, 4 March 2011).
For sure, calling a special inspection, or referring Syria to the Security Council in some other manner, would be problematic for the country, which is already facing unilateral sanctions by the United States. However, it is doubtful that the inspection call would be dealt with at once by the ministries in Damascus. The government is in all likelihood focussed on the domestic situation, which has been decaying steadily over the last few months. And even if it were not, it is not likely to play along with the request. It would first try to stall it for as long as it could. It would then either do as North Korea, break off any attempts to enforce the inspection, or engage in a piecemeal fashion, as it has already.
On the other hand, modern on-site inspection techniques (especially so environmental sampling) has yielded impressive detection rates. Syria would need to be convinced that the inspection team will not find any rouge particles, mislaid documentation, or errant memory sticks loaded with North Korean designs anywhere.
…going straight to the Council…
Going straight to the Council is theoretically possible. It may also be the preferred choice for many governments seeking to increase the pressure on Damascus. Syria’s actions against its own people have made most states open to the direct action route. However, it is not without its difficulties. Some would argue that it makes no sense to go to the Council as long as the Secretariat still has authority to continue the probe. They would also reiterate that no violation has been proved, simply a likely one. Others are likely to challenge the Secretariat’s conclusions on technical grounds.

Syria still has regional friends, who would not want to see the country censored in an international forum. The question is how many friends it may have left. As the repression of the Syrian people intensifies, the country is finding itself increasingly isolated, and increasingly vulnerable. For sure, being censured by the United Nations as a country that seeks weapons of mass destruction, on top of one that violates fundamental human rights, will not be in Damascus best interests. As well as piling up the international pressure, and perhaps even fuelling domestic dissent, it will make the task to recover the country’s lost standing difficult. It may be that the Board would want to exploit this window of vulnerability. The threat of stepped up diplomatic censure may force Damascus to play along with the inspection process, at least for a while.
…or doing nothing.
The final alternative would be to decide to be undecided. This is likely if the Board debate becomes exceptionally fractured and divisive. The so-called Vienna spirit has been badly damaged in later years, and attempts to rebuild it have been lackluster at best. Some governors might feel that Syria isn’t worth the row—even if the site was a nuclear reactor, and that is ‘very likely’ after all, it doesn’t pose much of a threat anymore. So why bother?
The problem, however, is not what we know, but what we don’t know. While we know that the Syrian reactor has vanished from the face of the Earth, we do not have any further understanding on what else might hide in the Syrian desert. This might be one compelling reason to act.
Another reason is more diffuse, and relates to the credibility of the non-proliferation regime as a whole. If no action is taken, it would be argued, Syria’s actions will show that it is possible to openly flout the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and to turn its back to the safeguards regime, without reaction. And this, some would argue, is not a good signal to send to other potential seekers of the Bomb.

Last changed: May 26 2011 at 3:59 PM