EDITORIAL: Syria’s nuclear reactor

The Al Kibar nuclear reactor in Syria

As someone who voiced great skepticism about the initial claims that Israel destroyed a nuclear facility in the Syrian desert on September 6, 2007, I’ll be the first to admit that the evidence provided in the DNI background briefing presents proof that Syria was in fact close to completing the construction of a Calder-Hall type of nuclear reactor producing plutonium. The evidence of North Korean involvement is not quite as compelling but there doesn’t seem much reason to doubt it. (Nearly all the information that follows comes courtesy of Arms Control Wonk.)

Here’s the video:

All in all, in terms of intelligence, this looks like an open and shut case — with one noteworthy exception: In the intelligence briefing a senior intelligence officer when asked about evidence of a Syrian nuclear weapons development program said this:

To go with the question you’re asking – weapons – we said, we believe it. There’s no other reason for it. But our confidence level that it’s weapons is low at this point. We believe it, but it’s low based on the physical evidence.

In other words, the physical evidence gathered indicated that Syria had built a nuclear reactor that, once operational, would have been capable of producing plutonium. There was no evidence that the reactor had been built to produce electricity and neither was it deemed suitable to be a research facility. The production of plutonium for use in nuclear weapons was thus inferred in the absence of any other plausible explanation.

The next point worth noting is that the decision to bomb the facility was Israel’s:

Q: Would the U.S. have considered any kind of activity had the Israelis not?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We obviously were looking very closely at options, and we had looked at some approaches that involved a mix of diplomacy and the threat of military force with the goal of trying to ensure that the reactor was either dismantled or permanently disabled, and therefore never became operational.

We looked at those options. There were, as I mentioned to you, conversations with the Israelis. Israel felt that this reactor posed such an existential threat that a different approach was required. And as a sovereign country, Israel had to make its own evaluation of the threat and the immediacy of the threat, and what actions it should take. And it did so.

The unanswered questions at this point nearly all seem to be political. Such as:

1. Why did the US government back Israel in a military action that totally undermines the authority and value of the IAEA?

2. Why has the intelligence been released now?

3. What impact should this have on any agreement reached with North Korea?

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  1. Still not buying it. We’ve seen doctored and forged “evidence” before (Powell’s UN presentation and the Niger forgeries). This doesn’t make sense on the level its being presented. Why would Syria, a poor country, commit significant resources to an easily visible and easily destroyed facility that wouldn’t have been available for 3 to 5 years and with no known source of fuel (unless you believe that they got all of Sadam’s secret stash of Niger yellowcake).

    I would think if you really wanted a device, you would have a much better chance of buying one or the components rather that trying to start from scratch. Especially when you’re with F16 range from Israel.

    Something else is up.

  2. There are plenty of poor countries whose leaders make dumb choices. The fact that this wouldn’t be a smart thing for Syria to do doesn’t prove anything.

    At the same time, living alongside an aggressive and nuclear-armed neighbor (Israel) would give Syria a strong enough motive to want to have its own nuclear deterrence.

    Powell’s “evidence” was much weaker than this – aerial photos of warehouses labeled “missile assembly building” and the like – amounted to a case built on labeling and forged documents instead of actual evidence.

    The strongest component in the Syrian case is being able to cross-reference the satellite images and the ground images. At this point, rather than the onus for proof being on those who argue that this was a reactor, I’d say the onus is on the Syrians to explain why they had constructed a Magnox reactor if it was not for the purpose of producing plutonium.

    I don’t imagine we’ll hear anything more than blanket denials from Syria.

    What is truly stupid – given what happened in Iraq – is why the IAEA wasn’t pulled in. Their inspectors could, it seems, have provided Israel and the US with all the international credibility they could ask for. Unfortunately, neither government attaches sufficient value to how they are perceived — indeed, each has at one time or another taken pride in displaying their contempt for global opinion.

  3. It seems to me you are ignoring the possibility that the evidence has been faked. Look at the analysis at Moon of Alabama.

  4. So it is ok for Israel to attack anybody at anytime if they want to build a nuclear plant?

    Who controld Israel? Who tells Israel what to do in the Middle East?

    Either way, the evidence is till not convincing, especially coming from a country (yes, Israel) that was convinced Saddam had nukes, and still goes on about Iran being 2 to 3 years away from a nuclear weapon.

  5. Tehranchik says

    I’m with dee on this. If you are offering this video as fool proof evidence – it’s not. Those pictures could have come from any nuclear construction site and we wouldn’t know the difference. I certainly have never seen the interior of a site before, during or after construction.

    We’ve been lied to and lied to—I don’t trust any of the info this admin puts in front of our eyes at this point. There’s always a war at the end of their info.

  6. Stephen Ward says

    It was very considerate of the Syrians to make photographs of this secret weapons site public. Come on!

  7. Gary Sugar says

    I have no idea whether the evidence is fake or real. But the point of the video is to justify the bombing; and I’m sure Bush released it now to build support for bombing similar facilities in Iran.

  8. I trust that everyone who is now deeply skeptical about the intelligence findings on the Syrian nuclear reactor was equally skeptical when the intelligence agencies, in last fall’s NIE, concluded that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons development program in 2003. If not, why not?

    Is the lesson from Iraq that we are now to judge the reliability of intelligence based on whether we like the sound of what it says?

    There are two issues here that need to be clearly separated:

    1. Is the intelligence credible?
    2. Why is it coming out now?

    The fact that there are clearly reasons to be suspicious of the political motives that might lie behind the decision to make this information known at this time, does not, in and of itself, make the intelligence questionable.

  9. Considering that Syria has been threatened countless times by both Israel and the United States, it is not unreasonable to assume that they might make an effort to develop nuclear weapons. Nukes have an uncanny ability to make other nuclear powers stand off. Needless to say, I remain skeptical of any Israeli or American claim about anything.

  10. Francis Najal says

    1- The IAEA is constantly ignored or bypassed. Is it a coincidence that Baradei has just announced a breakthrough in the Iran nuclear negotiations that may clean Iran. IAEA is made irrelevant and therefore whatever result they will reach with Iran will be dismissed.
    Baradei and IAEA are humiliated and Baradei’s anger show that he knows it.

    – Syria being a strong ally to Iran , I wonder why would they need to have a reactor now and why did they use North Korean expertise instead of knowledgeable and closeby Iran ( including how to hide it)
    I doubt Syria is childish enough to expose themselves to more threats and attention by building a nuclear site visible by all satellites!
    Syria has often proven they are smarter than that. While the CIA, the present US administration at highest levels and the US media have a record of false information (carried even in the State of the Union speech) that are heavily based (biased) on Israeli intelligence ( Remember NYT infamous Judith Miller)

  11. Send Scott Ritter or Geroge Galloway to the alleged nuclear site and see what they might have to say. Do not trust anyone in this Aministration, the neocons or the Israelis–ever!

  12. Analysis shows serious flaws in CIA theory: