As if concerns over whether Syria’s chemical weapons might fall into the wrong hands amid the increasingly violent civil war weren’t enough to worry about, behind the scenes nuclear experts are now expressing fresh fears over the security of what may be 50 tonnes of unenriched uranium in the country.
As the FT’s diplomatic editor James Blitz reported on Wednesday, concerns centre on the whereabouts of this as yet unconfirmed stash. It is believed by some to have been meant for Syria’s supposed al-Kibar nuclear facility – before Israel destroyed it in a secret mission back in September 2007, a mission that David Makovsky dissected in the New Yorker last September.
For its part, Syria has always denied ever having a nuclear programme. So, did it have one or not? Below are some interesting articles that wade into these extremely murky waters.
Sticking with the New Yorker, back in February 2008, when there had been a proliferation of stories written on evidence brought forward suggesting a nuclear programme, US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh – known for his access to US military circles – wrote:
“…in three months of reporting for this article, I was repeatedly told by current and former intelligence, diplomatic, and congressional officials that they were not aware of any solid evidence of ongoing nuclear-weapons programs in Syria.”
Hersh cites Mohammed ElBaradei, then the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, saying that expert analysis concluded that it was unlikely the bombed building was a nuclear facility.
This was later disputed by ElBaradei’s successor Yukiya Amano, quoted in a scathing critique of Hersh’s reporting on intelligence matters by Brett Stephens in the Wall Street Journal in June 2011. “…the Agency concludes that the destroyed building was very likely a nuclear reactor.” This is the IAEA report and to go with it the Guardian’s publication of documents released via Wikileaks showing Amano stressing he was “solidly in the US court on every key strategic decision”.
The highly-politicised context of this strike and its aftermath was made only too apparent in an opinion piece by Peter Hoekstra, then a senior Republican member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, then a senior Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It criticised the Bush administration’s dissemination of information on the strike, about which there was initial silence, and then only intelligence offered to a chosen few, “leaving the vast majority of foreign relations and intelligence committee members in the dark”.
All this was happening at a time when the US was working on a compromise with North Korea over its declared nuclear activities, but evidence had been put forward alleging Pyongyang’s involvement in the construction of the purported Syrian nuclear facility, as laid out by Peter Crail in Arms Control Association.
In the Journal, the two Republicans wrote:
“If the Israeli airstrike last month is related to covert nuclear collaboration involving Syria and either North Korea, Iran or other rogue states, this may or may not be an issue that can be easily addressed by negotiations alone. It is certain, however, that such a serious international security issue will not stay secret forever.”
Here is an FT video compilation of images used by the CIA to build evidence against North Korea’s purported assistance at the al-Kibar site and the accompanying story analysing how all may not be what it seems.
So what of Assad’s reaction? The FT reported in June 2008 the Syrian leader saying that North Korean assistance was “100 per cent fabricated”. But there was no retaliation for the Israeli strike and in April 2008 Syrian officials talked of Jerusalem seeking peace with Damascus. The FT’s Middle East editor Roula Khalaf explained the highly complex nature of reaction in the region given the distrust of the US after Iraq and frustration over Israel’s (undeclared) arsenal.
Nearly five years on, the public are none the wiser. But with uncertainty surrounding the existence – and if so – whereabouts of a uranium stockpile at a time when Iran is in need of some, fears about how it may be used remain just as acute.