Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Enigmatic Syrian Reactor

In September 2007, rumors and scant pictures appeared of an Israeli bombing of a Syrian nuclear facility. Israel bombed a facility in Syrian soil, probably killing Syrian citizens, and Syria didn't say a word. Israel apparently had good evidence that the Syrians were building a nuclear facility, and didn't say a thing--at least publicly--to the IAEA, the US, or any media source.

The above image is a before-and-after of the facility; Syria quietly razed the site after it had been bombed, and has not put up a fuss. In fact, the first acknowledgment that the site could be nuclear comes from the US Intelligence Community, which claims to have video evidence (to be shown to Senate tomorrow) of North Korean officials assisting Syria in constructing the plant, which appeared to be capable of refining small amounts of plutonium to weapons-grade. Why the wait, the secrecy?

Sadly, there's no clear answer. This is certainly curious; Syria has a tendency to overstate Israeli wrongdoings, but stayed quiet here. Syria was probably simply trying to prevent too much public attention from bearing down on it for its building of the facility. But why did Israel insist on staying quiet, especially when it became increasingly apparent that the Israelis indeed carried out the attack? I simply don't know. Perhaps a deal with the Syrians had been made. Indeed, the Israelis have just recently leaked that they might be willing to return the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a peace agreement.

And on another funny timing note, Iran has recently agreed to give a detailed report to the IAEA about its nuclear program, and whether or not Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons (hint: the Iranians are going to say "no" to that). All this after Dick Cheney and Robert Gates both visited Oman--a friend of Iran--a few weeks ago, and after the US Navy parked the USS Cole back in the Persian Gulf coastal waters. Most interestingly, six-nation talks aimed at disarming North Korea's nuclear program just restarted. There's not enough out there to be sure of what all the timing means. Hopefully, the US decision to out the Syrians and North Koreans on their nuclear dealings comes as part of a greater political maneuver, but the timing is good enough that I would be genuinely surprised if it wasn't. Maybe the US is trying to pressure North Korea into disarming, or pressure the UN and the six-nations into bargaining harder. Maybe it is trying to pressure Iran by proxy, in particular as the US publicly blames Iran for supporting troublesome armed groups in Iraq (though Iran's official stance is supportive of disarming them). Maybe this is a golden opportunity to pressure both, and try to achieve a wrap-up of two of Bush's biggest foreign policy challenges in the last 8 years: Iraq and North Korea.

But we won't know for some time.
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