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– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
Holding Syria Accountable
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Volume 2, Issue 7, June 9, 2011

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors' decision today to refer Syria to the UN Security Council for noncompliance with its safeguards obligations was an important step in maintaining the credibility of the agency and the safeguards regime. It was critical that the international community demonstrate that countries could not consistently refuse to cooperate with IAEA investigations with impunity.  

After three years of investigations, and Syria's repeated refusal to allow the IAEA additional access to the Dair al Zour site, its failure to answer questions about imported materials consistent with a nuclear program, and the inconsistency of its explanations regarding some of its previously undeclared activities, it was important that the IAEA send a signal that Damascus could not hope to stonewall the investigation indefinitely and ultimately get away with the attempted construction of a covert nuclear reactor aimed at producing plutonium for nuclear weapons.

IAEA action in response to its conclusions regarding the Dair al Zour site was also important to prevent countries from drawing the conclusion that attacks against suspect nuclear facilities are acceptable alternatives to IAEA investigations and diplomatic resolutions to proliferation threats.  

Russia's assertion during the board's consideration of the resolution that the Dair al Zour facility "no longer exists and therefore poses no threat to international peace and security," suggests that if such facilities are destroyed, the international community is absolved from its responsibility to address that attempted proliferation, a perspective that makes similar attacks all the more likely.  

As IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano told the board at the opening of its meeting June 7, rather than destroying the suspected reactor in 2007 before the agency was able to perform its verification activities, the issue should have been reported to the IAEA. The early resort to military action, taken due to a lack of confidence in the ability of the international community to uncover and respond to such noncompliance, only undermines the IAEA even further and weakens the nonproliferation regime.

Yet despite the difficulties the agency faced in the aftermath of Israel's September 2007 attack and Syria's subsequent cover-up, the agency was able to uncover information on its own that raised additional suspicions regarding the nature of the Dair al Zour facility.  Due to Syria's lack of cooperation, the IAEA was not able to determine with absolute assurance that the facility was indeed a reactor, but equipped with both its own evidence and that provided by the United States and others, it was able to conclude in its latest report that the facility "was very likely a reactor" whose construction Syria should have declared to the agency. Such a determination helped to demonstrate the effectiveness of the IAEA's verification capabilities. The follow-through by the board, finding Syria in noncompliance and reporting the matter to the Security Council, shows that the agency can respond to such a determination.

The Security Council referral is still far from resolving the matter, and the council now bears the responsibility to respond to Syrian noncompliance. Punitive action by the Council is unlikely in the near term. However, the more important task for the council is to impose upon Syria a legal obligation to provide the IAEA with access to both the Dair al Zour site, as well as the three "functionally related" sites identified by the agency. The IAEA currently lacks the legal authority to inspect any undeclared nuclear activities in Syria, and Damascus has been using that limited legal authority to prevent a thorough investigation into its suspected covert nuclear program. In addition, the Council should require that Syria explain its procurement of materials that the IAEA determined are consistent with the construction of a nuclear reactor.

In order to prevent similar attempts to acquire key materials and technologies for the illicit nuclear programs, it is critical to have an understanding of how Syria was able to obtain them, especially since North Korea is not believed to be Syria's sole supplier.

Naturally, the current domestic political crisis in Syria and efforts to impose UN sanctions against Syrian human rights abuses complicates the prospect of action against Syrian proliferation. But countries should not use those developments as an excuse to look the other way regarding nuclear transgressions by Damascus. Even if prospects for near term action are slim, the council and the IAEA now need to show that the issue is still taken seriously, and Syria cannot bank on its strategy of stonewalling indefinitely.-PETER CRAIL