Tracing Syria’s Nuclear Ambitions
Fall/Winter 2010 - Number 19

Tracing Syria’s Nuclear Ambitions

Joshua Pollack

t he first indication that something unusual had happened in a remote corner of the Middle East was an item published on the afternoon of September 6, 2007, by Syria’s official state news agency. Israeli aircraft had infiltrated Syrian airspace early that morning, it reported. According to a Syrian military spokesman, air defense units chased away planes that dropped “ammunition,” but did no damage.1 Israeli officials had little to say in reply. “I don’t know what you are talking about,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the press.2

It fell to an unexpected source to start spelling out the nature of events. In a message carried a few days later by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, Pyongyang condemned Israel for its “dangerous provocation,” denounced the “intrusion,” and extended “full support and solidarity” to the Syrians.3 Although it mostly mirrored the Syrian announcement, the North Korean statement contained some of the first accurate details about the incident, alleging that Israeli Air Force planes had dropped bombs in Syria’s northeastern desert. (The exact location and effects of the bombing were left unstated.) The North Korean condemnation also raised eyebrows for having been issued in the name of the Foreign Ministry–a distinction used by Pyongyang to call attention to more serious declarations.

Within days, Western reporters had published multiple, conflicting rumors about the event, including allegations of a North Korean connection to a secret nuclear program in Syria. When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad finally acknowledged the destruction of a Syrian facility, he described the target as being of no real importance, simply a group of empty military buildings still under construction. He also denied interest in “any nuclear activity.”4

But new reports soon began to appear in the American news media alleging that Israel, after lengthy consultations with the United States, had indeed attacked a North Korean-made nuclear facility in the desert. By late October, the website of ISIS, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., had published commercial satellite photographs of a box-like structure, tucked into a remote wadi (canyon) alongside the Euphrates River near the town of Dayr al-Zawr. The length and width of the “box” resembled the proportions of the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, where North Korea had produced plutonium for its first nuclear test the previous year.

Faced with these suspicions, an anonymous Syrian official conceded to American journalist Seymour Hersh that North Korean construction workers had been at the scene of the bombing, which he described as a manufacturing plant for “low tech” missiles. Another Syrian source hinted to Hersh that the project might have been related to chemical weapons.5 Earlier, Syrian officials allegedly had told a Turkish delegation that the building had been a missile depot.6

In April 2008, American intelligence officials finally confirmed the existence and destruction of a secret nuclear reactor built in Syria with North Korean assistance, a project that may have begun as early as 1997, under the rule of late leader Hafez al-Assad. The officials released an audio-visual presentation with detailed photographs of the facility, first while under construction and then while being demolished after the attack. Construction had started in 2001; at the time of its destruction in 2007, the officials explained, the reactor was nearly complete, but had not been fueled.7

Curiously, that may be where the rest of the world is content to leave matters. Despite having joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-weapons state in 1969, Syria has faced no identifiable penalty for its clandestine nuclear program other than the destruction of the reactor itself. By comparison, NPT violations by North Korea and Iran have faced widespread condemnation and multiple rounds of international sanctions. Israel, which is not a member of the NPT, has faced increased pressure to join the treaty. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is charged with confirming NPT member states’ compliance with nuclear safeguards, has not pursued the Syrian matter aggressively, and has been hobbled by a lack of cooperation from Damascus.

Foreign governments have not pressed the Syrians in public; the United States was largely silent until its April 2008 presentation, and has added little to it since then. At the time, a senior administration official explained the earlier secrecy as part of an effort to avoid starting a war by painting Syria into a corner. Only once the danger had “receded,” the official explained, was it responsible to discuss the matter in public.8 The Syrian government, for its part, continues to deny the allegations.

WMD in Syrian strategy

The September 2007 incident provided a glimpse into the evolving strategic logic of the world’s sole remaining Ba’athist state. Although Syria has rivalries with other Arab states and a history of disputes with Turkey, Syria’s central motive for acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) seems to be the need to offset Israel’s conventional military power.

This point is not always spelled out by Syrian leaders, who often cite Israeli nuclear capabilities when hinting at their own motives for possessing WMD. However, the record shows Syria’s most fundamental military requirements to be twofold: counteracting Israel’s superior air power, and deterring any possible advance into Syria by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) armored units.

The IDF overran the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War and came within a short distance of Damascus during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Accordingly, the Syrian military received its first SS-1 “Scud-B” missiles from the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s. Syria also imported Soviet SS-21 “Scarab” missiles shortly after the 1982 Lebanon War, when Syria lost dozens of Soviet-made fighter aircraft in a one-sided engagement with the Israeli Air Force, and IDF land forces plunged deep into Lebanon, close to most of Syria’s major cities.

It was presumably with these experiences in mind that Bashar al-Assad once told an interviewer, “Yesterday’s situation is not today’s and I do not believe any clever official in the Zionist entity can ignore the essential developments that have taken place in the methods of confrontation, the most prominent of which is the ability to transfer the battle into the enemy’s territories.”9 Similarly, Foreign Minister Walid Moallem recently warned that any future war “will move to the Israeli cities,” a clear reference to Syria’s missile capabilities.10

An early version of this policy was unveiled at an Arab summit in 1974 by Bashar’s father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, who gave it the name al-tawazun al-istratiji–“strategic parity” or “strategic balance.” Originally, the idea referred to the achievement of parity between Israel and the Arab states as a group, but as Egypt withdrew from the confrontation and Iraq became embroiled in its war with Iran, the elder Assad’s conception of parity became increasingly focused on the narrower Israeli-Syrian arena.

Less obviously, Syria’s strategy of deterrence against Israel also supports the regime’s survival against internal threats. Syria’s authoritarian government faces two major challenges at home, each of its own making. First, although Syria has a Sunni Muslim majority, the government has become the patrimony of the Assad family, which belongs to the Alawite minority. Indeed, Syria is almost as famous as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for its repressive government and sectarian politics. Although the country has not experienced a successful coup since Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970, the brutally suppressed uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in the early 1980s underscores the basic fragility of the regime’s position.

Second, Syria’s economy is stagnant even by regional standards. Despite some diversification of the economy in recent years, promises of far-reaching reform, such as eliminating price controls and ending the preferential lending practices of state-controlled banks, have yet to materialize. So long as statist policies provide the government with opportunities to mollify the public and reward internal allies, they are unlikely to be abandoned, even if the economy as a whole continues to underperform.

A government that represents the interests of a small minority and offers the rest neither freedom nor prosperity must still offer something; in Damascus, that “something” is continuing to confront Israel long after the other Arab states have quit the arena. Carrying the banner of the Arab cause provides the Assads with a claim to regional leadership greatly out of proportion to Syria’s population, economy, or territory, and grants them popular legitimacy that they would otherwise lack. It presumably dissipates some of the pressure for economic liberalization, since a permanent war footing explains and justifies a lack of prosperity. Syria carries out this policy of confrontation rhetorically and materially, by allying with Iran, hosting most of the Palestinian “resistance” organizations (including Hamas) in Damascus, and channeling arms and support to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Without the ability to deter Israel, Syria would find it impossible to sustain such a belligerent posture without courting more wars and defeats.

Syria’s strategic deterrent has been built through a series of foreign partnerships beyond the Arab world. In the early 1980s, Syria came to see the U.S.SR, which supplied it with missiles and warplanes, as a more important ally than the other Arab states. But as the Soviet Union began to crumble in the late 1980s, the Syrians were compelled to look further afield. Starting in March 1991, Damascus imported North Korean Scud-C missiles, whose 500-kilometer-range can reach any point in Israel from southern Syria.11 (These imports also provided the option of striking Baghdad from western Syria, which may have seemed prudent after the “Wars of the Cities” between Iraq and Iran during the late 1980s.) Syria also sought more advanced missiles from China and Russia in the 1990s, but these suppliers proved more susceptible to American pressure than the North Koreans.

North Korea has also proven far more willing than other sellers to transfer the basis of an independent missile production capability to its customers, Syria included. Over the last decade, working with what the U.S. intelligence community describes as North Korean and Iranian assistance, Syria has developed Scud-D missiles with a 700-kilometer-range, which allows missiles located deep inside Syria to reach anywhere in Israel.12 The Scud-D is reportedly accurate enough to be useful against airfields and other military targets, and not only against cities. This improvement may contribute to Israeli concerns about a possible transfer of Scuds from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The intelligence community also reports that Syria has produced a chemical weapons stockpile, with air-dropped bombs, warheads for artillery rockets, and warheads for ballistic missiles.13 Syria’s chemical arsenal allegedly has been produced under the cover of the same civilian research center that is reported to oversee ballistic missile development, the Centre D’Etude et Recherch√© Scientifique (CERS). The Syrian chemical arsenal appears to consist of sarin, mustard gas, and possibly VX nerve gas. Some of Syria’s Scud missiles are reportedly armed with submunition-dispensing warheads filled with sarin or other agents.14

Although Syria is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, it has wrapped a veil of secrecy around its chemical weapons program, offering only oblique forms of public acknowledgment. While European suppliers seem to have played more important roles in selling Syria chemical precursors and equipment suitable for producing chemical-warfare agents, some sources claim that North Korean experts have participated in the development of chemical warheads for Syrian ballistic missiles.15 Asked in early 2009 whether North Korea or Iran were involved in Syria’s chemical weapons efforts, President Assad responded with a non-denial, saying, “We work trustingly together with many countries on research programs.”16

This aspect of the Damascus-Pyongyang relationship is opaque, and details tend to emerge only in fragments. A handful of reports in late September 2007 described a fatal accident at a Syrian military facility, said to involve a Scud missile with a chemical warhead, possibly with North Korean technicians present.17 These claims echoed a similar report from May 2004 in the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun. According to Sankei, a massive train explosion in North Korea involved Syrian technicians from CERS, who had been transporting “large equipment.” North Korean military personnel in protective suits allegedly removed debris from the section of the train that had carried the Syrians and their cargo.18 Less ominous but better attested was a different interrupted transaction: four shipping containers full of nuclear-biological-chemical protective suits in transit from North Korea to Syria were seized in a South Korean port in 2009.19

Seemingly the only WMD-based rationale that Syrian officials have not offered for the building at Dayr al-Zawr would be biological warfare. Syria is not believed to possess biological weapons, although the United States has alleged that Syria has engaged in “BW-related activities” of the sort prohibited by the Biological Weapons Convention. A hint of interest was also dropped in the form of an article on biological warfare that appeared in an Iranian military journal in late 1999 under the name of Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas.

Investigating Syria’s atom

The sole organization with the authority to investigate undeclared nuclear facilities in NPT member states is the IAEA. But the nuclear watchdog played no such role in Syria for the better part of a year after the Israeli air raid. The situation was haunted by two previous crises: first, the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, when IAEA and UN inspectors were still working on verifying Iraq’s declaration of its past WMD activities; and second, the long-running investigation of Iran’s nuclear program, which had failed to compel Iran to stop sensitive nuclear activities that had commenced under cover of secrecy. Recalling Iraq, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei feared a collapse of the nonproliferation regime if states resorted to force based on privately held suspicions. The leaders of the United States, Israel, and other states, meanwhile, feared that a protracted investigation would only give Syria time to obfuscate and entrench its nuclear program.

On October 15, the IAEA Secretariat announced that it had “no information about any undeclared nuclear facility in Syria,” declaring with evident frustration that it “expects any country having information about nuclear-related activities in another country to provide that information to the IAEA.”20 And in a televised interview later that month, ElBaradei acknowledged being “very distressed” about the air raid, “because we have a system. If countries have information that the country is working on a nuclear-related program, they should come to us. We have the authority to go out and investigate. But to bomb first and then ask questions later, I think it undermines the system and it doesn’t lead to any solution to any suspicion, because we are the eyes and ears of the international community.”21

Almost eight months after the air raid, on April 24, 2008–the same day that the U.S. intelligence community finally briefed Congress and the news media about the details of the Syrian reactor–the American ambassador to the IAEA in Vienna received an urgent cable instructing him to brief the Director-General.22 In a later interview, ElBaradei called the delay “unacceptable,” and again lamented the use of force: “Of course, we could toss out everything in the way of collective security systems that we have built up since World War II and say: Let’s go back to the Middle Ages and pull out our clubs. This is a decision that must depend upon the international community of nations. I am horrified by how little protest the military action in Syria has triggered.”23

Only at this point did the investigation commence. Because Syria has yet to sign an agreement giving safeguards inspectors wide-ranging access (an “Additional Protocol”), the IAEA began by seeking permission to visit locations not declared by Syria to be nuclear sites. On May 2, the IAEA sent a letter to Syria announcing its intent to dispatch inspectors from Vienna. After a long delay, the Syrians consented to the visit, and the IAEA team arrived in Damascus on June 22. The group visited Dayr al-Zawr the next day. The Syrians described it as a non-nuclear-related military facility, but refused to provide documentation to support this claim. Nevertheless, the inspectors were able to take samples of microscopic particles at the site, turning up traces of uranium. Confronted with the evidence in October, the Syrians insisted that the traces must have come from Israeli weapons, alluding to the depleted uranium munitions used by some militaries.24 However, the particles were chemically processed natural uranium, not depleted uranium.25

The uranium traces proved to be so plentiful that they could only be explained by a substantial amount of uranium at the site at the time of the bombing, although there were not enough to indicate a fully fueled reactor. One plausible theory was that the Syrians had brought a “test assembly” to the site to ensure that the fuel channels were properly configured. Suspicions quickly arose that the possible test assembly might have been removed from the Yongbyon complex and sent to Syria, but Siegfried Hecker, a distinguished former Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory who has visited Yongbyon on multiple occasions, confirmed that nothing was missing from Yongbyon as of February 2008. The processed uranium apparently had come from somewhere else.26

Dayr al-Zawr was not the only site the IAEA had sought to visit. Through satellite photographs and “other information,” presumably meaning tips from foreign governments, the IAEA had also identified three other locations of interest in Syria and requested access to them in its letter of May 2. The Syrians never responded to this request, but the IAEA did observe, based on satellite photographs, “that landscaping activities and the removal of large containers took place shortly after the Agency’s request for access.”27

Stonewalled concerning undeclared sites beyond Dayr al-Zawr, and denied plausible answers to its questions about Syria’s suspicious acquisitions activities, the IAEA intensified its scrutiny of Syria’s declared nuclear facilities. In August 2008, inspectors took samples at the small research reactor supplied by China in the early 1990s. In May 2009, the results came back: traces of chemically processed natural uranium were present in the “hot cells,” equipment used for the safe handling of small amounts of irradiated material. It was increasingly apparent that Syria had obtained a uranium supply that it had kept a secret. The location of the traces also hinted at small-scale experiments with reprocessing.

Initially, the Syrian authorities explained that the hot cell uranium traces reflected the accumulation of sample and reference material routinely used for scientific experiments, and could also involve contamination from a shielded transport container.28 After this story fell through, the Syrians conceded that they had imported small amounts of uranyl nitrate without declaring them to the IAEA, and also mentioned domestically produced “yellowcake” uranium as a source of the traces.29

These admissions intensified the IAEA’s suspicions about what might have been taking place at the three mystery sites, especially since Syria had larger amounts of uranium to work with; during a July 2004 visit to a plant near the city of Homs that extracts uranium impurities from phosphoric acid, IAEA inspectors had noted the presence of “some hundreds of kilograms of yellowcake.”30 This amount would not be sufficient to fuel a Yongbyon-type reactor, which requires about 50 tons of uranium, but it would be more than enough to support experiments in chemical conversion (for making fresh fuel) and reprocessing (for separating plutonium from irradiated fuel).

In March 2010, the IAEA undertook a complete inventory of all uranium stored at MNSR. At this point, the Syrians acknowledged that they had conducted previously undisclosed experiments in uranium conversion and irradiation.31 Syria had been secretly experimenting with some of the technologies necessary for fueling a reactor and separating plutonium.

The IAEA’s work in exposing Syria’s concealed nuclear activities remains incomplete. For Director-General ElBaradei, Damascus was the aggrieved party, and was to be considered “innocent until proven guilty” even while it changed its story and withheld cooperation from safeguards inspectors. ElBaradei’s successor, Yukia Amano, has not expressed similar views about Syria, but has continued to move cautiously. The glacial pace of the international investigation has led to calls for the IAEA to invoke a “special inspection,” a rarely used tactic that would legally oblige Syria to cooperate. The IAEA’s reluctance to use this power has allowed the Syrians to block access to the three mystery sites and to prevent the IAEA from returning to Dayr al-Zawr for a second look. The IAEA has also refrained from preparing a formal finding of noncompliance, which would place Syria on the docket of the UN Security Council.

The risk of exercising these options is that they may provoke Syria to refuse all cooperation, and to threaten to exit the NPT–the strategy chosen by North Korea after the IAEA’s invocation of the special inspection authority in 1993. The editor of a Syrian newspaper close to the government has even hinted at a replay of this scenario, asking why Arab states should not consider nuclear weapons of their own.32 Until recently, however, it has appeared that no member states would urge Amano to initiate a special inspection. By one account, official Washington considered Syria’s nuclear program to have been successfully disrupted, and preferred to avoid a confrontation.33 But after years of obstruction, the mood has finally begun to shift. In early August, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA called for the Agency to consider a special inspection.34

An Iranian connection?

Questions still left unanswered include how far Syria had progressed toward uranium conversion and reprocessing, and who was giving Damascus assistance in this area. North Korea is not the only potential partner, or necessarily even the most desirable one: Iran also has experience with these technologies, especially uranium conversion.

Connections between Iran and the Syrian nuclear project have been asserted before, but not spelled out in any detail. According to a report in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, a high-ranking Iranian defector to the United States revealed that Iran was “apparently funding a top-secret nuclear project in Syria, launched in cooperation with the North Koreans,” about which he knew nothing more. Without mentioning a source, the same report also mentions a visit to Damascus in 2005 by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, an Iranian engineer who appears to have been deeply involved in an effort to design a missile re-entry vehicle suitable for a nuclear warhead.35 The IAEA has questioned Iranian officials about foreign travel by Fakhrizadeh “and other people known to be involved in Iran’s nuclear programme” between 1998 and 2001; the Iranian side has acknowledged that the trips occurred, but denied any relationship to the nuclear program.36

Although there is no conclusive evidence, it is possible that a connection exists between Syria’s secret nuclear program, and a facility established in 1999 in southern Iran to mine and mill uranium ore. The amount and whereabouts of the uranium produced at Iran’s Gchine mine are unknown, but its declared maximum capacity runs to 21 tons a year, enough to produce a load of fresh fuel for the Dayr al-Zawr reactor every two and a half years.37

There also may be connections between Dayr al-Zawr, Gchine, and a group of concealed nuclear and missile research projects described in a set of Iranian documents apparently passed to the IAEA by German intelligence. The documents link the company that established the Gchine facility, called “Kimia Maadan,” to a secret uranium conversion effort called the Green Salt Project. Making green salt, also called uranium tetrafluoride, could serve more than one purpose, but it is a necessary step in manufacturing fuel for a Yongbyon-type reactor. The same set of documents also describes weaponization research, including Fahkrizadeh’s reentry-vehicle project. All of the programs mentioned in the documents have what the IAEA calls “administrative interconnections.”38

The Iranians have (unconvincingly) denied the authenticity of most of these documents, and even if they are completely legitimate, it does not guarantee that Gchine and Green Salt are connected to Syria. Still, these puzzle pieces connect well enough that the resulting picture gives pause.

Possible Syrian motives

Because Damascus continues to deny the existence of the North Korean-designed nuclear reactor near Dayr al-Zawr and has curtailed its cooperation with the IAEA, no authoritative account exists of the Assad regime’s motives or decision to seek nuclear weapons. With due caution and an appreciation for how much remains unknown, it is at least possible to describe some potential Syrian motives for acquiring nuclear weapons by examining the manner and timing by which Syria sought to produce fissile material.

Four main possibilities emerge. First, Syria may have long sought nuclear weapons as part of its pursuit of regional leadership, but took decades to find the right partner (or partners) in North Korea (and potentially Iran as well). Second, the Assad regime may have sought to compensate itself for the loss of its nuclear-armed superpower ally, or for a perception that its chemical weapons arsenal had lost efficacy as a deterrent. Third, the Assads may have seen the North Korean nuclear program as a successful adaptation to difficult circumstances, and decided to follow suit. Fourth, Syria may have been hosting an “offshore” program jointly owned with North Korea, Iran, or both. These possibilities are not necessarily entirely mutually exclusive: the truth could involve elements of more than one of the ideas presented here.

The first possibility that emerges from this record–a “supplier” hypothesis–would involve a longstanding interest in nuclear weapons, perhaps as old as Assad’s “strategic parity” concept, that had only started to come to fruition after the right supplier came along. Based on an analysis of the nuclear histories of Iraq, Iran, Israel, Libya, and Egypt, Etel Solingen concludes that attempting to acquire nuclear weapons is in fact the norm in the Middle East; for Arab states, this pursuit appears motivated primarily by a competition with each other for regional leadership. More generally, Solingen finds that nuclear-weapons programs tend to be associated with inward-looking states with closed economies that need not attend closely to the sensitivities of the international community.39 This perspective would be consistent with decades-long Syrian nuclear-weapons ambitions that only neared success after the appearance of one or more foreign partners that were sufficiently capable, affordable, and immune from third-party pressures.

A second possibility, a “rebalancing” hypothesis, centers on the disappearance of Syria’s nuclear-armed superpower ally. Syria effectively lost the backing of the U.S.SR by the time of Hafez al-Assad’s visit to Moscow in April 1987, when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev asked Syria to repay its debts, and reportedly advised Assad to abandon the goal of strategic parity with Israel.40 Regardless of the exact timing, this turn of events may have inspired Assad to move ahead on his own with a nuclear-weapons program, or to redouble previous efforts.

Both the “supplier” and “rebalancing” hypotheses leave at least one key question unanswered: why, if Syria was so determined to pursue nuclear weapons, would it have taken so long to move from the purchase of North Korean missiles, first delivered in 1991, to the joint construction of a reactor, agreed upon in 1997? One potential answer involves the greater sensitivity involved in a clandestine nuclear trade, which may have required time to build up trust. For comparison, North Korea exported missiles to Pakistan in 1994, but does not appear to have shipped uranium hexafluoride–which Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan subsequently reshipped to Libya–until around 2000.

Third is the “exemplar” hypothesis. It is possible that the North Koreans provided Syria not only with nuclear technology, but with an example of how an isolated, authoritarian state with a weak economy could survive in an American-dominated international environment. The Syrian regime faced a difficult situation in the 1990s, having just lost its main ally and arms supplier, and having witnessed the abrupt end of the authoritarian regimes of Eastern Europe, not to mention the alarming dissolution of a multi-confessional state in Yugoslavia.

The prospect of new sources of foreign aid may have encouraged Damascus to join the American-led coalition assembled against Iraq in 1990, and to participate in the regional peace talks convened in Madrid in 1991. These dramatic gestures took pressure off the Syrians, and helped instill a perception in Western leaders that Syria, like Egypt in the late 1970s, could be courted and brought into the moderate camp through a peace treaty with Israel. But an extensive process of American mediation throughout the 1990s foundered in the face of Syrian inflexibility.

North Korea also pursued negotiations in the 1990s, but its possession of nuclear facilities and a small stockpile of plutonium strengthened its hand. Pyongyang was able to engage with the United States as a counterpart, not just a mediator. It managed to extract aid from both Washington and Seoul, simultaneously easing internal pressure for reform and providing the best available guarantee against external threats. North Korea’s nuclear program may even have contributed to the successful transition of power from father to son in 1994. All of these advantages would have looked enviable to the Assads in the mid-to-late 1990s.

Fourth is the “offshore” hypothesis, which would credit North Korea with much of the initiative for Dayr al-Zawr. Because North Korea had frozen its facilities at Yongbyon as part of an agreement with the United States, it might have had an interest in resuming the production of plutonium in some other, far distant location. Notably, the U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework was negotiated in 1994 by the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, who died later the same year. His son and successor, Kim Jong Il, does not seem to have cared for the Agreed Framework, and may have sought a way to evade it.

A similar line of thinking could extend to Iran. From Tehran’s point of view, developing and transferring nuclear technologies to Syria, or locating joint facilities there, unlike any nuclear facility found in Iran, would serve a valuable purpose: it would backstop their own efforts with an alternative technology in an unlikely location. Even if nuclear work in Iran were to meet insurmountable technical hurdles or be detected and disrupted, the “offshore” program in Syria could continue.

Is the program finished?

To a greater or lesser extent, all four possibilities above involve a serious determination by Damascus to make fissile material in secret. None is very reassuring. There is no obvious reason that the bombing of Syria’s nearly completed reactor would unravel its motivation to go nuclear, especially given the lack of consequences for the first, thwarted attempt. After Israel bombed Iraq’s reactor in 1981, the Iraqis switched to a harder-to-detect uranium-enrichment program; Syria could do something similar. One question is whether it has access to any uranium-enrichment technology.

In a 2007 interview, Bashar al-Assad claimed to have previously rejected an advance from Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan, who sold gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment to Libya, Iran, and North Korea, and also attempted to sell them to Iraq. According to Assad, “In early 2001, someone brought a letter from a certain Khan. We did not know whether the letter was genuine or a forgery by the Israelis who wanted to lure us into a trap. We rejected it anyway. We were not interested in having nuclear weapons or a nuclear reactor. We never met with Khan.”41

Beyond general skepticism, there is some reason to doubt Assad’s version of events. According to one report, Khan traveled to Beirut in the mid-1990s to meet a senior Syrian official.42 It is possible that Khan made multiple approaches to Damascus, first under Hafez, then under Bashar. While there is no indication that any arrangements were concluded, the Syrians do appear more familiar with the Khan network than Bashar lets on. Syria was recently named as one of seven countries said to be courting former members of the Khan network. The list also includes Iran and North Korea.43 With Khan himself out of business, one or both of these countries are Syria’s most likely partners for pursuing enrichment technology.

For the United States and other supporters of the nonproliferation regime, the ideal outcome would be for Syria to follow Libya’s path: to come clean about its past activities, betray its partners, and make new arrangements for its security. But for reasons already discussed here, this scenario appears quite unlikely, and Washington’s patience has started to wane. At some point, perhaps not very far in the future, Syria will face a tougher, less forgiving stance from the international community.


Joshua Pollack is a consultant specializing in nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. He writes a monthly column for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and is a regular contributor to the ArmsControlWonk blog.

  1. “Air Defense Units Confront Israeli Aircraft over Syrian Airspace Forcing Them to Leave,” Syrian Arab News Agency, September 6, 2007.
  2. Yoav Stern and Mazal Mualem, “Israel Mum on Any IAF Entry into Syria Airspace,” Ha’aretz (Tel Aviv), September 7, 2007.
  3. “Israel Condemned for Intrusion into Syria’s Territorial Air,” Korean Central News Agency, September 11, 2007.
  4. “Full Text of the Interview Given by HE Dr. Bashar al-Assad, President of the Syrian Arab Republic, to Lyce Ducet of the BBC,” Syrian Arab News Agency, October 1, 2007.
  5. Seymour Hersh, “A Strike in the Dark,” New Yorker, February 11, 2008.
  6. Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper, “An Israeli Strike on Syria Kindles Debate in the U.S.,” New York Times, October 10, 2007.
  7. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Background Briefing with Senior U.S. Officials on Syria’s Covert Nuclear Reactor and North Korea’s Involvement,” April 24, 2008.
  8. Ibid. For comparison, see also Mark Mans-field, “A Conversation with Former CIA Director Michael Hayden,” Studies in Intelligence 54, no. 2 (June 2010).
  9. “An Interview with Bashar al-Assad,” Middle East Media Research Institute Special Dispatch no. 244, July 23, 2001.
  10. Isabel Kershner, “Israeli Minister Adds Heat to Exchange with Syria,” New York Times, February 5, 2010.
  11. “Syrian Missile Milestones–1972-2005,” Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control Risk Report 11, no. 5 (September-October 2005); National Air and Space Intelligence Center, “Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat,” NASIC-1031-0985-09, 2009, 11, 13.
  12. Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis, “Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, Covering 1 January to 31 December 2009,” 7.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Syria Profile: Chemical Overview,” September 2009.
  15. M. Zuhair Diab, “Syria’s Chemical and Biological Weapons: Assessing Capabilities and Motivations,” Nonproliferation Review 5, no. 1 (Fall 1997), 104-10; “Syria’s Chemical Weapons–1997,” Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control Risk Report 3, no. 6 (November-December 1997); Dany Shoham, “Guile, Gas and Germs: Syria’s Ultimate Weapons,” Middle East Quarterly 9, no. 3 (Summer 2002).
  16. “’Peace without Syria Is Unthinkable,’” Der Spiegel (Hamburg), January 19, 2009.
  17. Markus Binder, “Explosion at Syrian Military Facility: A Chemical Weapons Accident?” WMD Insights, November 2007.
  18. “DPRK Train Explosion: Syrian Technicians on Board,” Sankei Shimbun (Tokyo), May 7, 2004.
  19. “Seized NK Containers Had Chemical Weapons Items,” Dong-A Ilbo (Seoul), October 6, 2009. A handful of conventional arms shipments from North Korea to Syria have also been intercepted in recent years.
  20. IAEA, “Recent Media Reports Concerning Syria,” Press Release 2007/18, October 15, 2007.
  21. Transcript of Interview with IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, CNN Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, October 28, 2007.
  22. Gregory L. Schulte, “Investigating the Rubble of Syria’s Secret Reactor,” Nonproliferation Review 17, no. 2 (July 2010), 403-17, at 404-05.
  23. “’If We Fail, Humanity’s Survival Will Be on the Line,’” Der Spiegel (Hamburg), June 11, 2008.
  24. IAEA, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic,” GOV/2008/60, November 19, 2008, 1-3.
  25. IAEA, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic,” GOV/2009/09, February 19, 2009, 2.
  26. Mark Hibbs, “US Expert: North Korea Didn’t Divert Safeguarded Fuel to Syrian Reactor,” Nucleonics Week, December 18, 2008.
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