Syria’s Stonewall

in Program

By Andrew Kurzrok – Syria has “failed to meet its obligations [to the IAEA],” by constructing a clandestine nuclear reactor that was destroyed by Israel in 2007, according to a recent report by the Department of State.  The International Atomic Energy Agency’s Director General, Yukiya Amano, similarly reprimanded Damascus in May, reporting to the IAEA’s Board of Governors that “Syria has not cooperated with the [IAEA] since June 2008.”

Damascus’ rejection of collaboration with the IAEA and the inability of the international community respond to this violation of global nonproliferation rules and norms again raise questions about the viability of the denial regime. Like Iran, the Syrian case could contribute proliferation in the Middle East, which would threaten peace and security worldwide.

Syria began its nuclear work in the 1970s, collaborating with the IAEA on peaceful research.  Rumors of a secret weapons program began as early as 1991, but were never well-substantiated.  The most recent controversy, however, dates to September 6, 2007, when Israeli fighter jets carried out a surprise attack and destroyed a large, non-descript building in northeast Syria.  Following the attack, Israeli officials offered no comments on the incident, while their Syrian counterparts publicly claimed that the facility was an “unused military building.”  Seven months later, in April 2008, the US.intelligence community revealed that the building was a nuclear reactor only weeks or months away from becoming operational.  Adding to the seriousness of the event, the nuclear facility was clandestinely built with the assistance of another nuclear pariah, North Korea.

Based on the US accusations, the IAEA launched an investigation into Syria’s potential non-compliance with its safeguards obligations.  However, in the time between the attack and the US revelation, Syria removed and reportedly destroyed the debris from the site, known as Dair Alzour, and constructed a new, larger – non-nuclear – building where the reactor had been.  When IAEA staff visited the location in June 2008, there was nearly nothing from the reactor left to analyze.    

Uranium particles, though, are extremely difficult to scrub from the landscape.  The IAEA took numerous environmental samples at the site and at Syria’s declared nuclear research reactor, the Miniature Neutron Source Reactor (MNSR), in Damascus.  In both locations, the Agency’s inspectors reported to the Board of Governors that they found uranium particles “of a type not included in Syria’s reported inventory.”  Syria provided several explanations, all of which were discredited by the Agency, before finally admitting that some of the particles may have come from previously-unreported activities.  Syria has refused further inspections of the Dair Alzour site as well as three other locations the IAEA believes are functionally related to the reactor.  The Agency reports that Syria has been both non-responsive to questions asked and unwilling to discuss facts found.

Syria’s stonewalling of investigators has shown that even if foreign intelligence services or the Agency discover a clandestine program, the IAEA has limited ability to pursue the truth in the face of refusal by a highly secretive, non-democratic member state.  Syria, like North Korea and Iran, has adopted a proliferation strategy based on denying, obfuscating and ignoring the international community’s calls to follow nonproliferation rules and norms. 

The Syrian case sheds light on other important questions:

  • While the reactor itself may be gone, the networks that supplied it and the individuals that authorized it remain unknown and possibly uninterrupted.
  • The Agency’s mandate is the assessment of capabilities, not intent.  By refusing to accommodate inspectors, Syria ensures that the Director General will never have the technical data necessary to make a non-compliance determination.  Without a pronouncement of non-compliance, the Director General is unable to refer the matter to the UN Security Council.
  • Thus far, the IAEA has not invoked its special inspections privilege, perhaps based in part on a 1992 Board of Governors decision reserving the special inspection for “rare occasions.”  The lack of progress through the IAEA’s standard investigatory channels makes this case a prime candidate for a special inspection.  The IAEA has been hesitant to use this power in the past, and failing to invoke it now further marginalizes the tool.
  • Israel’s use of force instead of bringing the matter to the IAEA’s attention undercuts the legitimacy of the Agency as an organization to effectively address safeguards non-compliance.  Israel violated Article 51 of the UN Charter, but the US has blocked the matter from reaching the UN Security Council.

Why has Syria’s non-compliance not been as thoroughly scrutinized as Iran’s?  The answer appears clear: Israel eliminated the facility in question.  That said, the wider agendas of many actors may play a role in preventing a meaningful investigation.  For example, the US needs Syrian assistance on the Iraqi border, partnership in any wider Middle East peace deal, and cooperation against Iran.  China and Russia, which have veto power in the UN Security Council, are the second and third largest exporters to Syria, respectively.  This year, Russia’s energy minister even suggested renewing atomic cooperation with Syria.  In the absence of an IAEA finding of non-compliance, energy-export hungry Moscow may be willing to prioritize economic interest over a robust non-proliferation response to Syria’s nuclear program.

Not resolving the Syria case may eventually jeopardize these wider agendas themselves.  The core facts remain: with the help of North Korea, Syria constructed a nuclear reactor and hid it from the IAEA. This is a violation of the country’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement. The inability or unwillingness of the international community to mount a forceful response to this development may lead to more countries seeking to develop nuclear weapons; regional arms races; erosion of the nonproliferation regime; and ultimately a less safe and secure world.

Photo Credit: Dean Calma, IAEA board of governors in Austria, 2006:

 Andrew Kurzrok is an intern in the Stimson Center’s Managing Across Boundaries program


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