What is Damascus hiding about its nuclear ambitions?

In the wee hours of September 6, 2007, Israel’s air force crossed into Syrian airspace and attacked a clandestine, nearly operational nuclear reactor located in the country’s remote northeastern desert. Were the strike the end of the story the international community might have tipped its hat silently, thanking Jerusalem for putting to bed a nuclear risk that could have increased regional tensions dramatically. But the assault proved to be a mere chapter in what now has become a saga. In the years since, Syria has successfully fended off international pressure to reveal its nuclear intentions—denying facts, generating false information, and destroying evidence of past activity.

The result leaves a number of unanswered questions. What are Syria’s nuclear ambitions? What nuclear activities is Syria carrying out at sites it has prohibited International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigators from searching? In short, what is Damascus hiding? 

The story of Syria’s nuclear hide and seek begins in the hours immediately after the Israeli strike. The country’s state-run news agency, SANA, reported that Israel’s aircraft penetrated Syrian air space (true), that Syrian air defenses opened fire and rebuffed the attack (false—Israel had electronically blinded detection and response), and that Israel dropped munitions on deserted landscape (also false—the attack destroyed a reactor near the town of El Kibar).

To avoid inciting Syrian retaliation, both Israel and the United States kept mum. Without authoritative information, the IAEA would not investigate. But the media filled the vacuum by cobbling together the facts and asking tough questions of the Assad regime. Pressed to fess up, Syria repeatedly scoffed that Israel’s strike hit “nothing.” In early October 2007, President Bahsar Assad applied his spin: The Israelis “bombed buildings and construction related to the military, but it’s not used, it’s under construction, so there are no people in it, there is no army, there is nothing in it and we do not know the reason, it was not clear. But for us it reflects the fundamental antipathy of Israel towards peace. That is how we see it. It does not matter what the target is.”

As the president talked, Syrian demolition crews worked feverishly to remove debris from the site. The CIA would later conclude that “Syrian efforts to dismantle the ruined building and remove every trace of the incriminating equipment—largely conducted at night or under tarpaulins for concealment—further underscored Damascus’s less than benign intent for the facility.” According to former U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA, Gregory Schulte, Syrian crews buried the reactor foundation with dirt from a nearby hill and capped the original reactor footprint with a new building. By summer 2008, Syria would stake its claim that the site was benign by allowing IAEA inspectors to visit.

Back in Washington, however, the Bush administration had been busy building a case against the Syrians. It gave new impetus for the inspection by providing an April 24, 2008 intelligence briefing to journalists that filled in many of the gaps in prior media accounts. The discussion revealed that U.S. concerns about Syria’s nuclear intentions began in the late 1990s but had remained fuzzy for years. Only months before the Israeli attack did the United States confirm Syria had indeed built a nuclear reactor nearing operational status. Constructed with North Korea’s assistance and modeled after Pyongyang’s Yongbong nuclear weapons production plant, the installation had no purpose other than plutonium production. Evidence—likely provided by Israeli spies on the ground—included photos of the reactor building’s interior prior to the strike.

“Absolute fabrication,” responded Imad Mostapha, Syria’s ambassador to the United States. “The photos presented to me yesterday were ludicrous, laughable.” But the IAEA, previously skeptical, now determined it had probable cause to investigate. After the agency’s June 2008 visit, it reported uncovering radioactive particles—suggesting nuclear operations at the site—and requested another site visit along with permission to visit three additional suspect locations. Syria responded by digging in. “We gave them the opportunity to conduct their research,” said Bashar Assad in a November 2009 interview with Der Spiegel. “This is a political game. They are trying to pillory us. We will not let that happen.”

Barred from reentry, the IAEA has since engaged in a fruitless and tiresome exchange with Syria—with the agency bemoaning the county’s noncooperation and Syria continuing to maintain that it is a faithful party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Washington, meanwhile, seems to have no effective game plan for breaking the deadlock. Speaking to reporters last month, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, Glyn Davies, said, “The United States’s position on this is we are not going to let this matter simply fade away. We are not going to let Syria run out the clock on this matter.” But running out the clock is precisely what Syria has done now for over three years, and there’s no indication that Washington’s current strategy is forcing Damascus to do otherwise.

The IAEA, however, hasn’t exhausted its means of enforcing compliance. Syria’s success in stonewalling comes despite the agency’s explicit authority to initiate special inspections in particular circumstances. Under Article 73 of the organization’s agreement with Syria, “the Agency may make special inspections ... if the Agency considers that information made available by Syria, including explanations from Syria and information obtained from routine inspections, is not adequate for the Agency to fulfill its responsibilities under this Agreement.” Yet IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano has not pressed for a special inspection.

If the agency were to push forward with such a request, Syria’s continued recalcitrance could tripwire a declaration of noncompliance by the IAEA’s board of governors and open the door for Security Council action. Even then, however, the Council is likely to dither—meaning Washington will ultimately be forced to make a choice between accepting Syria’s defiance or cajoling its European and other allies to cut off diplomatic and economic ties with Damascus.

In the meantime, Syria is getting a free ride. It has suffered no consequence for snubbing the IAEA. Already shaken by North Korea’s defection and Iran’s manipulation, the nonproliferation treaty now finds itself at a crossroads. If it cannot be enforced in Syria, a relatively weak country currently buffeted by its own Arab spring, the wounded agreement risks falling into irrelevance—and the region into a tense nuclear future. The treaty’s survival requires that the international community draw a line. It should start at the gates of Damascus.

Bennett Ramberg has served as a foreign policy analyst and a consultant to the Department of State, U.S. Senate, Nuclear Control Institute, Henry Stimson Center, Global Green, and Committee to Bridge the Gap.