Nuclear Revelations about Syria/ Israel-Syria negotiations?

Apr 30, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

April 30, 2008
Number 04/08 #08

This Update focuses on two recent developments vis a vis Syria. Firstly, according to the US CIA Director, what Israel destroyed in a mysterious airstrike in Syria last September was a plutonium producing nuclear reactor, capable of producing enough plutonium for one to two nuclear bombs per year, built with North Korean assistance. (Japanese sources says some North Korean officials were killed in the raid.) Meanwhile, there are reports of new secret Israeli-Syrian peace overtures, via Turkish mediation.

First up, top Israeli non-proliferation specialist Ephraim Asculai comments on what the revelations about the Syrian reactor mean. Asculai, who worked at the International Atomic Energy Agency for many years, is particularly keen to comment on the negative implications of this revelation for the future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – which has seen a total of five states now that have secretly reneged on their NPT commitments. He also had some choice words on the “astonishing” reaction to the revelations by IAEA Director General Mohamed elBaradei, who attacked Israel and the US for not telling the IAEA about the secret reactor so it could “verify” it. For this full piece, CLICK HERE.

Next up, the British-Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) has a good analysis of both the nuclear and negotiations revelations concerning Syria. It includes not only what is known about both revelations, but speculation about possible reasons for the coincidence in the timing of the two. It also offers some good discussion of the considerable obstacles to real Israeli-Syrian progress, including likely Israeli demands that Syria separate from Iran, and cease supporting Hezbollah and Hamas as part of any agreement. For all of this analysis, CLICK HERE. More comment on the difficulty of “flipping” Syria out of the Iranian orbit comes from commentator Noah Pollack.

Finally, the Jerusalem Post comments on the history of Israeli-Syrian negotiations and why Israelis remain sceptical. The paper supports a deal based on a withdrawal to the international border, demilitarisation and international guarantees. However, it cautions that, given past history, and recent statements by Assad rejecting any normalisation or relations with Israel, Israelis will need some proof of seriousness in order to make the irrevocable strategic concessions needed. For this full comment, CLICK HERE.

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Syria, the NPT, and the IAEA

Asculai, Ephraim

INSS Insight No. 53, April 29, 2008

Given the official US statements, backed by extraordinary visual evidence, there is little doubt that the Israeli Air Force raid on the night of September 6, 2007 destroyed a building housing a nuclear reactor. There are many political and military ramifications both of the facts themselves and the way they were brought to light. However, one of the longer term effects is the impact of the revelations on the nuclear non-proliferation regime in general and on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in particular.

    What did the new information reveal? that the installation that was destroyed was a nuclear reactor, probably still under construction; that the reactor was similar to the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon that produced plutonium (subsequently used in an underground nuclear test explosion); and that Syria, despite its NPT obligations, concealed the very existence as well as the purpose of the installation and repeatedly denied the facts to the world and to the IAEA.

     Syria has been trying to buy a nuclear reactor from several sources for a long time. It had sought to buy a research reactor from Argentina in the mid-1990’s, but this failed when Argentina’s foreign minister told Syria that it would not sell it a reactor unless Syria signed a peace treaty with Israel. Syria then tried, unsuccessfully, to buy a reactor from Russia. Apparently, Syria then concluded a secret deal with North Korea for the construction of a Yongbyon-type reactor in Syria. The extent of the North Korean involvement is
not yet publicly known and is not that relevant, except for the fact that North Korea acted in breach of its NPT obligations.

     There can be little doubt as to the purpose of the ill-fated reactor. Had it been intended for truly peaceful uses, it would have been declared to the IAEA. In addition, Syria’s repeated denials give credence to the claims that the reactor was part of a clandestine weapons development program. Furthermore, Syria acted with astounding speed, razed the stricken installation, and is putting up a supposedly military installation on the old foundations, making it almost impossible for any investigators to reveal the original purpose of the site.

      There are five members of the NPT that have seriously reneged on their treaty obligations – Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Libya. Iraq’s project came to an end as a result of the 1991 Gulf War. Libya agreed to a rollback, probably as a result of the American invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The remaining three may still be conducting illegal activities aimed at producing nuclear weapons. North Korea has long been suspected of having a clandestine uranium enrichment project. Iran has an ongoing nuclear weapons development program. And there is no guarantee that Syria is not going the same route, given the rumors about the connection with the Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan, the biggest proliferator of all.

    The nuclear non-proliferation regime suffered an additional blow with the uncovering of Syria’s misdeeds. The extent of the damage will be only known over time, and the prospects for the future need a much more elaborate discussion. In any case, if there will be no substantive change in the manner of the oversight and the application of regime, and if the NPT PrepCom and review conferences continue to become bogged down in secondary issues, the situation can only deteriorate further.

    The reaction of the IAEA to the information that came out of the Congressional briefing was astounding. An Associated Press report quoted the IAEA: “The Director General [DG] views the unilateral use of force by Israel as undermining the due process of verification that is at the heart of the non-proliferation regime.” In addition, “The Director General deplores the fact that this information was not provided to the Agency [by the U.S.] in a timely manner, in accordance with the Agency’s responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to enable it to verify its veracity and establish the facts.” With regard to these statements, it should be noted first that verification is not a substitute for the demise of the reactor, which removed the potential for and the danger of plutonium production. Second, one should ask what would have actually happened had the facts been verified by safeguard inspections? Given the historical precedents, the IAEA DG would likely have deplored the fact that the reactor had not been declared in a timely manner, accepted Syrian assurances that hitherto the reactor would be safeguarded, and stated that Syria had the right to build and operate a nuclear reactor, as long as it was safeguarded.

      In any case, the IAEA could not have prevented the continuing construction and later operation of the reactor, which would have resulted in the potential for the production of plutonium, as was demonstrated by this reactor’s sibling – the Yongbyon reactor. It is easy to understand the DG’s wrath – he probably did not figure in any of the decision making process prior to the bombing. At present, Syria signaled that it would be willing to let the IAEA search for the truth. It is a “no win” situation for Syria if the inspectors uncover the remains of a nuclear reactor. It is a “lose” situation to the IAEA if it does not.

      One cannot escape the conclusion that the IAEA has continuously failed in its missions, notably in Iraq, Iran, and Syria. The IAEA has set up an extensive organization, including a Division of Information, which is really a Division of Intelligence, within its Department of Safeguards. The Syrian episode clearly demonstrates that the division has failed in its task. One does not need such a division if the DG states that he has to rely on external information and chastises the Member States for not providing the information in a timely manner.

     This may be an appropriate time for the Board of Governors (BOG) to contemplate a much more thorough oversight of the operation of this organization. Given the political realties, however, it is highly questionable whether the IAEA Board of Governors will indeed do so.

Dr. Ephraim Asculai worked at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) for over 40 years, mainly on issues of nuclear and environmental safety. He now serves as Ephraim Asculai as a Senior Research Fellows specialising in issues of WMD proliferation at the  Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv Univerisiy.

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BICOM Analysis, April 29, 2008


In recent days, two revelations have served to return Syria to the centre of attention in the Middle East. The first was the closed hearing of the US House Intelligence Committee, at which evidence was presented regarding the facility in eastern Syria destroyed by Israeli aircraft in September 2007. According to a summary released after the hearing, the evidence indicated that the facility was a plutonium processing plant, which formed part of a clandestine Syrian nuclear program. The evidence presented also supported suspicions that the plant had been constructed with the involvement of North Korea.[ii] The second revelation concerned the issue of a possible peace process between Syria and Israel. A report in the Damascus newspaper al-Watan related that on Tuesday 22 April 2008, Israel had conveyed a message to Damascus via Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, in which the government of Israel confirmed its willingness to cede the entire Golan Heights in return for a peace agreement with Syria.[iii] This article will examine both these revelations in detail, consider possible links between them, and conclude by looking at the implications of the latest revelations for regional diplomacy.

Evidence of nuclear activity?

The evidence presented at the Congressional hearing included detailed photographic images suggesting a number of close similarities between the Syrian al-Kibar facility, and the North Korean Yonbyon nuclear reactor. One picture taken at al-Kibar showed the rods used to control the heat in a nuclear reactor. Observers suggested that the rods showed a virtually identical configuration and number of holes for the fuel rods between the al-Kibar facility and Yonbyon.[iv] Congressmen were also shown a photograph of the manager of the Yonbyon plant together with the director of Syria’s nuclear energy agency. The picture appeared to have been taken in Syria. It was noted that the al-Kibar facility was ‘not configured to produce electricity’, and was unsuitable for research purposes. The report also noted that the US possesses information ‘spanning more than a decade’ of nuclear cooperation between Syria and North Korea, and concludes that in the view of the US, the facility at al-Kibar destroyed by Israel on 6 September 2007, was a ‘gas-cooled, graphite moderated nuclear reactor.'[v]

Intelligence officials, briefing reporters after the hearing, accepted that they possessed no evidence suggesting that Syria had constructed a facility for converting the fuel that would be produced at the reactor into weapons-grade plutonium. At the same time, the officials confirmed that they could think of no other explanation for the existence of the reactor. The clandestine nature of the facility clearly placed Syria in violation of its commitments according to the Non-proliferation treaty (NPT), of which Damascus has been a signatory since 1969. Syria has long denied possessing any nuclear facilities, including of a civilian nature.

Syrian officials, for their part, dismissed the veracity of the evidence presented at the Congressional hearing. Syria’s Ambassador to the US, Imad Moustapha, claimed that the building Israel bombed in September 2007 was an empty military facility. The ambassador also said that the photos shown may not even have been taken in Syria.[vi] Such claims may appear shrill. A new report, however, by the Institute for Science and International Security, the civilian research agency which produced the first civilian satellite imagery of the al-Kibar site after the Israeli raid, raises a series of legitimate questions regarding the latest US revelations. The ISIS report notes the absence of evidence indicating the development of a weaponisation program, and the absence of any evidence showing how the Syrians would have obtained the uranium necessary for fuelling the facility.[vii] Such questions are surely pertinent, although they do not detract from the clear illegality of the Syrian activity already uncovered. And it is hard to explain the clandestine nature of the Syrian program, since the Syrians could have pursued a civil nuclear capability through open channels, in line with their NPT commitments, had they chosen to do so.

Syria announces Israeli commitment

In the midst of the growing controversy over the evidence of a Syrian nuclear program, came the sudden announcement of a secret channel of communication between Israel and Syria, via the Turkish government. Al Watan reported that Israel had communicated to Syria via this channel that it was willing to cede the entire Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria. Syrian Expatriate Affairs Minister Buthaina Shaaban told al-Jazeera the following day that the Israeli message had expressed a willingness to withdraw from the entirety of the Golan. Such a concession would represent the full realization of Syria’s demands. Israel neither confirmed nor denied the report, but both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PM’s Spokesman Mark Regev subsequently spoke of Israel’s interest in a negotiated peace with Syria, and of the two sides’ mutual awareness of what the other would expect in order to successfully conclude such a process.[viii]

Analysts immediately sought to explain the coincidence of the sudden awakening of a possible negotiating process between Syria and Israel, at the moment of the revelation regarding Syria’s nuclear efforts. From Israel’s point of view, it was known that the Israeli defence establishment was uncomfortable with the US decision to make public the evidence regarding Syria’s nuclear efforts. Israel is understood to have no desire to place Syria in a humiliating public position as it may make Syrian retaliation for the September raid more likely.[ix] From the Israeli point of view, the raid itself was sufficient to transfer the desired message to the Syrians regarding the true balance of power between Jerusalem and Damascus. It is therefore possible that Israel wished to remind Syria of its readiness for a negotiated peace, involving concessions, as a means to reassure Damascus that Israel has no aggressive intentions toward Syria, and to allow Assad’s regime to ‘save face.’

From the Syrian point of view, Damascus has long sought to lever the negotiating process with Israel in order to re-establish communication with the US. At this moment of tension between Washington and Damascus, the sudden Syrian announcement of a revived negotiating process may well have been intended to play such a role. Undoubtedly, a serious negotiating process between the sides could only be mediated by Washington.

Such a process would not of course be a simple exchange of the Golan Heights for a peace treaty. Rather, the central aspects of the negotiation would be the Golan, and Syria’s network of regional alliances. Israel’s expectation (and that of the US, in any conceivable scenario of US mediation) would be that in return for gaining the Golan, Syria would: end support for Palestinian rejectionist and terror groups, end support for Hezbollah, terminate its strategic relationship with Iran, and end all support for the Iraq insurgency. The intention would be that Israeli territorial concessions would be instrumental in bringing Syria over from the Iran-led regional axis, back into the mainstream Arab fold. Such an outcome would be of major strategic importance.[x]

How realistic is the prospect of fruitful negotiations?

However, how likely is it that Syria would be tempted by such a deal? Syria, as Middle East expert Fouad Ajami has noted, is a naturally weak country which has punched above its weight in the region because of its ‘capacity for mischief.'[xi] It has been Syria’s willingness to act as a disruptive force which has forced both other Arab nations and the international community to take its wishes into account. Syria’s defiant stance has also formed the basis for the regime’s internal legitimacy. Syria is ruled by a regime based upon a minority community of doubtful Muslim affiliation (the Alawis). But the Arab nationalist rhetoric employed by the regime and its defiance of the US and Israel buy it a considerable measure of legitimacy and popularity among the majority Sunni Syrian population. The implication of the price currently being discussed for the return of the Golan Heights would be that Syria would be required to entirely cede its ‘capacity for mischief,’ abandon its desire to return to dominate Lebanon, end its 25 year alliance with Iran, and cease support for radical Palestinians. In return, Syria would gain the Golan Heights, and – following a honeymoon ‘prodigal son’ period in which it would be feted and in which information it could provide would be of value – it would  become a small, not very important member of the pro-western alliance in the region.

Many Israeli analysts and policymakers are skeptical as to whether at the present juncture; Bashar Assad will be willing to pay the price for such an agreement. As President Shimon Peres put it over the weekend, “We would not turn the Golan heights to the Iranians.”

Peres added that “Assad prefers Lebanon and the relation with Hezbollah to the Golan Heights. If they do not break their relations with Hezbollah and the Iranians, they can’t have the Golan… Assad is worried that he might lose his rule of Syria if he agreed on peace with Israel.”[xii]

Given this, it is not yet clear whether the channels of communication between Israel and Syria will result in the opening of a meaningful negotiating process. Israeli officials, nevertheless, are keen to stress Israel’s openness to such a process – making clear that the ‘ball is now in the Syrians’ court. The latest revelations regarding the raid of September 2007, meanwhile, appear to show the extent to which the Bashar Assad regime is prepared to go in pursuing its long term goal of developing a credible military threat to Israel – but also the distance between this goal and current reality.

[i] David E. Sanger, “Government Releases Images of Syrian Reactor,” New York Times, 25 April 2008. www.nytimes.com See also Robin Wright, “N. Koreans taped at Syrian Reactor,” Washington Post, 24 April 2008. www.washingtonpost.com

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Isabel Kershner, “Israel and Syria hint at progress on Golan Heights deal,” New York Times, 24 April 2008. www.nytimes.com

[iv] Sanger.

[v] From the White House presentation on Syrian/North Korean ties, www.nytimes.com

[vi] “Ambassador: claims about Syria are ‘Iraq déjà vu,” CNN, 25 April 2008. http://edition.cnn.com

[vii] David Albright and Paul Brannan, “Syria Update III: New information about al-Kibar reactor site,” ISIS Report, 24 April 2008. www.isis-online.org

[viii] Kershner.

[ix] Amos Harel, Barak Ravid and Shmuel Rosner, “Israel: Syria may rethink retaliation in light of nuclear revelations,” Haaretz, 25 April 2008. www.haaretz.com

[x] See Testimony of Peter W. Rodman, Senior Fellow, Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, 24 April 2008. http://www.brookings.edu

[xi] Fouad Ajami, “Arab Road,” Foreign Policy, No. 47, Summer 1982, p. 16.

[xii] “Peres: Assad wants Lebanon – not Golan,” Naharnet, 25 April 2008. www.naharnet.com

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Editorial: A Golan peace

Jerusalem Post, Apr 24, 2008

Syria and Israel are said to be indirectly negotiating a deal over the return of the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty between the two nations. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reportedly acting as the intermediary and will meet with President Bashar Assad in Damascus over the weekend.

For over 40 years Israel has been willing to explore the possibility of a withdrawal to the international border (not the 1949 Armistice Line that was the demilitarized zone) in exchange for true peace. The Golan would have to be completely demilitarized; the Syrians would have to commit not to obstruct the flow of water into Israel; and there would have to be ironclad international guarantees that the treaty would stand the test of time.

It is germane to recall how Israel first came to control the strategic mountains in the first place. In the early 1960s Syria sought to divert the flow of water from Israel. Saboteurs based in Syrian training camps infiltrated via Jordan and Lebanon. In April 1967, the Syrian military that was entrenched atop the Heights, which tower 700 meters above the Galilee, unleashed an unusually fierce shelling of Israeli communities below. Then IDF chief of General Staff Yitzhak Rabin warned the Ba’ath regime that it would face severe consequences if its unprovoked aggression persisted.

In response, a Syrian-Egyptian alliance, under Russian sponsorship, readied for war. Then Syrian defense minister Hafez Assad – Bashar Assad’s father – announced that his country was ready to “liberate” and “explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland. The Syrian army with its finger on the trigger is united. I, as a military man, believe that the time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation.”

Facing massed armies on its borders and hysterical threats from Arab leaders, Israel struck first on June 5, 1967 and captured the Golan along with Judea, Samaria, Gaza and the Sinai. Syria attacked Israel on Yom Kippur in 1973, but was repulsed.

SINCE THEN, the Syrians have remained a force for instability in the region. They are a state sponsor of terrorism, house Hamas in Damascus and maintain Hizbullah’s lifeline to Teheran. Along the way, Syria has been implicated in the assassination of Lebanese politicians and in funneling jihadi gunmen into Iraq. Syria has virtually melded its foreign and security policies with those of Iran. And now it is revealed that, for the past five years, Syria has been collaborating with North Korea on building a nuclear reactor for the production of plutonium.

It is unclear why Syria leaked news of Ankara’s efforts to facilitate a deal on the Golan. Does Assad want to distract the world from revelations in Washington about his ties to North Korea? Was the mysterious liquidation of Hizbullah’s Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus Assad’s way of signaling a readiness to break with Hassan Nasrallah and Iran? Has Syria’s Alawite ruling clique rethought its relationship with the Persian Shi’ites given that its own population is 74% Sunni Arab?

WHATEVER HIS motivations, Israel should judge Assad by what he says and what he does. Assad insists that even under a peace treaty normalization is out of the question. This is how he put it at a conference in Damascus last week: “Restoration of land and rights may lead to relations based on routine, but not [necessarily] normalization. What happened in Jordan and Egypt is proof to us that the public does not want normalization, and therefore nobody can impose it on anybody else. I know that the Syrian people reject normalization and therefore I will not impose it on them.”

It is in Israel’s long-term interest to have a peace treaty with Syria, but not at any price. Israel would have to make irrevocable strategic concessions. So it’s hard to imagine many Israelis having the confidence to support a deal that does not signify a true opening of genuine peaceful relations.

If Assad wants a treaty, we urge him to come to Jerusalem or invite Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Damascus. After 60 years of unremitting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement Syrians may indeed not be ready for normalization. But if he wants Israelis to risk all by ceding the Golan, Assad is going to have to show that he truly wants a change – and he is going to have to take some chances too.

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