Syria Shirks Follow-Up IAEA Probe

Peter Crail

Syria has denied the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) permission to conduct additional inspections to verify claims by Washington that it had a clandestine nuclear weapons program. In September 2007, Israel bombed a facility near the village of al-Kibar on suspicions that the site was a nuclear reactor under construction with North Korean assistance. (See ACT, October 2007. )

The official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported Aug. 9 that an official source from the Syrian Foreign Ministry said that Damascus previously concluded a memorandum of understanding with the IAEA to carry out a single visit at the al-Kibar site. According to SANA, the source added that Syria can provide the agency with answers to any further questions regarding the site. Damascus maintains that the site was not a nuclear facility.

The IAEA conducted an investigation of the site June 22-24 and is still in the process of analyzing environmental samples from the visit. Although nuclear material is not believed to have been introduced to the facility prior to its destruction, the presence of graphite in the samples might bolster the case by Washington that the facility was a nuclear reactor modeled on North Korea's graphite-moderated reactor at Yongbyon. North Korea used its Yongbyon reactor to produce plutonium for its nuclear weapons program.

The agency began its investigation following U.S. briefings April 24 to the IAEA, Congress, and the public, outlining the Bush administration's suspicions that the facility was a nuclear reactor nearing operation. (See ACT, May 2008. ) In June, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei told the agency's Board of Governors that the IAEA is "treating this information with the seriousness it deserves." He further noted that, as a state with comprehensive IAEA safeguards in force, Syria "has an obligation to report the planning and construction of any nuclear facility" to the agency.

In the midst of considerations regarding Syria's possible violation of its safeguards obligation to report the construction of a nuclear reactor, Damascus is also pushing for election to a two-year seat on the agency's 35-member Board of Governors. The board is one of the IAEA's key decision-making bodies and elects 11 rotating members each September based on a geographical distribution.

Syria's membership on the board might have some impact on the board's decisions regarding any further consideration of Syria's suspected nuclear program, as well as Iran's nuclear efforts, but Damascus would not be in a position to block any decisions unilaterally. The board generally aims to operate by consensus but is not required to do so. Under IAEA statute, the board adopts resolutions on a simple majority basis.

Syria, Russia Talk Arms Sales

In addition to seeking a seat on the IAEA board, Damascus is also looking to strengthen its relations with Moscow in the wake of Russia's recent conflict with Georgia.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow Aug. 21. During his visit, Assad expressed support for Russia's position regarding Georgia, stating, "Georgia started this crisis, but the West is blaming Russia." The Georgian conflict put Syrian rival Israel and Russia at odds due to Israel's support for Georgia's military.

Russian Deputy Chief of General Staff Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn said during an Aug.19 press conference that "Israel armed the Georgian army," explaining that Israel provided military equipment and training to the Georgians.

Assad appeared to take advantage of this blow to Russia's relations with Israel by seeking Russian arms for Syria, a prospect to which Moscow appeared receptive.

The Itar-Tass news agency quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Aug. 21 saying that Russia is prepared to sell arms to Syria that "have a defensive character and that do not in any way interfere with the strategic balance in the region."

In recent years, Syria has revived some of its conventional arms trade with Russia, which had decreased significantly following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The two countries concluded arms agreements valued at about $700 million between 2003 and 2006, compared to just $400 million between 1995 and 2002. Moreover, in 2005, Russia cancelled most of the $13 billion Syria owes from previous bilateral arms agreements.

Syrian and Russian officials denied Russian media reports that any new arms sales would involve the transfer of the 280-kilometer-range SS-26 Iskander-E ballistic missiles to Syria. SANA stated Aug. 22 that "[t]here is no truth to media reports that Syria had agreed to deploy Iskander missiles on its territory." The SS-26 is designed to have evasive capabilities to penetrate missile defense systems.

Israel has expressed concern regarding potential arms sales to neighboring Syria. In an Aug. 14 interview with the Israeli newspaper Novosti Nedeli, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni indicated that Israel requested that Russia refrain from selling arms to Syria. She highlighted the risk that such weapons might be transferred to terrorist organizations, stating that "if some of the weapons inevitably find their way to Hezbollah, and consequently, the tension increases, it makes sense to stop shipping weapons and to not sell new types of weapons."