Monday, April 28, 2008

Syria and North Korea: Nuclear Partners?


On the 25th of April President Bashar Assad of Syria issued a rebuttal to US claims of a nuclear reactor program in Eastern Syria. The site in question was violently thrust into world view on the 6th of September, 2007 when an illegal Israeli air raid destroyed the facility. Israel has refused to comment on the action, ostensibly in order to refrain from having to admit to such a blatant violation of Syrian territorial sovereignty, and Syria showed great restraint by not justifiably retaliating against the naked aggression of its Jewish neighbor. Fast forward to the 24th of April of this year, and the United States released information describing the facility as a nuclear reactor being constructed with the assistance of North Korea.


Syrian intentions for the reactor complex were unclear, but analysts have theorized that a lack of any major infrastructure in the area indicated that the reactor was not intended for power production. Coupled with the fact that there are no major population centers in the area to make use of any electricity generated by the complex, it would appear that the analysts have come to the correct conclusion. The obvious alternative, given the North Korean assistance in the matter, was to create a reactor able to produce weapons-grade plutonium for use in a nuclear weapon.


The reasoning behind the presence of a nuclear material production facility inside of Syria is not necessarily as clear-cut as it may seem. The obvious inference is that it was intended to produce nuclear material to support a Syrian nuclear weapons program. A Syrian nuclear weapons program would certainly have provided the impetus behind Israel's action of September, 2007. However, the reports of North Korean aid, bolstered by images released depicting a reactor complex startlingly similar to the one in place at Yongbyon, North Korea, may indicate a far more sinister purpose.

The North Korean government is currently negotiating with the United States under the framework of the Six Party Talks to halt nuclear proliferation activity in return for diplomatic and economic concessions from the West. The talks have currently reached an impasse, as the North Koreans are reluctant to reveal details regarding their past proliferation activities, including any aid to Syria in this regard. North Korea has made progress with regard to halting its own nuclear activity, including the shutdown of the Yongbyon reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. North Korea still views the United States as a significant military threat on the peninsula, and their sudden agreement in February of 2007 to shut down the Yongbyon reactor facility raises serious questions. The reactor facility was inspected by the IAEA, who verified its shutdown in August of 2007. US intelligence officials have claimed that the Syrian complex may have been within weeks of becoming operational when it was destroyed in September of that year. The connection that seems to be eluding the intelligence services as well as the media outlets reporting on the incident is whether or not North Korea would have benefitted from the Syrian reactor's output of nuclear material. It is possible that the purpose of the Syrian reactor complex was to benefit both Syrian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs. Analysts have noted that there does not appear to have been any enrichment facilities located on-site, facilities which would have been needed in order to transform the reactor's plutonium output into true weapons-grade material suitable for use in a nuclear weapon. By placing the enrichment facilities at a separate location, Syria achieves two things. First, less attention is drawn to the facility. Second, the plutonium by-product must therefore be transported to an enrichment facility. It would not be difficult to mask the transfer of some or all of the plutonium to a ship or aircraft bound for North Korea, allowing the North Koreans to continue their nuclear weapon production while at the same time preserving an air of cooperation in the eyes of the world with the shutdown of their own reactor complex. Alternatively, North Korea may have simply intended to construct a separate weapons production facility inside of Syria with the intent of arming both nations. Given that North Korea has far greater knowledge on the subject of nuclear weapons design and production than Syria, enlisting their aid in that regard would be a logical maneuver.


In his statement, President Assad claimed that the facility in question was an unused military complex, but he would not specify its purpose. Assad claimed that the site was obviously not a nuclear related facility, as it was not protected by any air defense systems. Unfortunately, Assad's claims, regardless of the true nature of the facility, are completely illogical. Eastern Syria would be a logical site for a covert nuclear facility. The location of the site is directly adjacent to a river, providing the necessary water source for cooling the reactor. Also, the site is not near any major military facilities, meaning that it was an unlikely target for surveillance. The lack of any air defense systems also aids the covert nature of the location. Any major SAM system, for example, would emit tell-tale signals from its radar systems, signals which would be tracked and identified by intelligence services. The appearance of air defense systems where none were present previously would only serve to attract unwanted attention to the area. Syria made the right strategic move by not defending the site with any significant military presence. Unfortunately, it would seem that their denial and deception efforts ultimately failed due to a human intelligence source on-site which is the likely source of the videotaped evidence shown by the US government to illustrate the nuclear nature of the facility.


This incident highlights the need for more significant diplomatic pressure to be palced on nuclear weapons states with regard to proliferation. Syria has a significant terrorist connection with Hizbullah and a significant diplomatic connection with Iran, two entities which could have benefitted from a Syrian nuclear weapons program, with potentially catastrophic results. While the unilateral decision of Israel to attack and destroy the facility cannot and should not be condoned, neither should the effort by Syria to construct a nuclear reactor under the nose of the IAEA in direct violation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, of which Syria is a signatory. Neither should bringing such an issue to the attention of the international community be screened on the basis of Israeli interests, as suggested by Senator Susan Collins of Maine.


Syria denies nuke allegations
IAEA reaction to US evidence
North Korean nuclear program timeline
6 Party Talks