Jeffrey LewisSyria Dumps the Evidence

Mark Mazzetti and Bill Broad have two very good stories on the suspect site in Syria — one placing the leaks in context of Administration internal debates over North Korea; the other reporting on new satellite imagery showing that North Korea has wiped clean the site.

I am sitting in an airport, but I thought a few points bear mention:

  • Syria has long expressed a desire to have a nuclear reactor; North Korea would probably sell a reactor if the price was right. On face, the story is not implausible.
  • The pictures showed a large building near a river. That’s about it. If the building was a reactor, it was very far from completion. Absent reliable human intelligence, I see nothing that conclusively demonstrates the building was a reactor although IAEA inspections would have been decisive on this point.
  • Assuming it was a reactor, it is much too early to make design determinations based on imagery. Overhead identifications of reactors can, and are, often wrong as they were in the cases of Baotou — a fuel fabrication facility in China mistaken for a plutonium production reactor — and the gigantic North Korean whole in the ground that is Kumchang-ri. As I noted the other day, IC estimates of the size and type of the Yongbyon reactor, at a comparable stage, were incorrect.
  • The people leaking are those dissatisfied with US policy. “A sharp debate is under way in the Bush administration,” Mazzetti and Helen Cooper reported, about “whether intelligence that Israel presented months ago to the White House … was conclusive enough to justify military action by Israel and a possible rethinking of American policy toward the two nations.” Obviously, that rethinking hasn’t happened yet. The people who lost that debate are leaking national security information, appealing to the press. That is precisely why Hoekstra (R-MI) and Ros-Lehtinen called for more information — this is about North Korea, not Syria.
  • We haven’t heard from the people who, as Mazzetti and Cooper reported, were “cautious about fully endorsing Israeli warnings” or “remain unconvinced that a nascent Syrian nuclear program could pose an immediate threat.” They might have important information to add, were they willing to leak it.
  • Syria has wiped the site clean — a move that Albright and Brannan note “dramatically complicates any inspection of the facilities.” What ever Damascus may have been doing, we’re much less likely to know, now. One of the best reasons for pressing for inspections at the site, rather than bombing it, is to get answers to the questions about what the site was and how it got there. After Israeli bombed Osirak in 1981, Iraq simply continued its nuclear weapons program in secret. It was not the bombing of Osirak, but rather UN inspections, which eventually disarmed Saddam Hussein.

In short, we don’t know what the site was, what (or who) survived the strike, and where it is now.


  1. Andy (History)

    Actually, it was the 1991 Gulf War that disarmed Hussein – there would have been no inspections without it, but I digress.

    It looks like Israel’s ordnance was accurate given the lack of obvious signs of blast damage near the now-missing building. I don’t see any far-flung debris one would expect, but that has likely been cleaned up, and the imagery in the ISIS pdf does not lend itself well to such detailed interpretation.

    One wonders how much of the foundation remains and if the remnants of the building were buried on site or trucked away. A wider imagery search of nearby areas might reveal if any debris was dumped elsewhere.

    From the political angle, I think Israel decided it would take no chances with Syria given Israel’s perception that the IAEA and international community did not and have not (yet) deterred or otherwise prevented the Iranian program.

  2. Allen Thomson

    A first look at the 24 October picture makes me think that Syria didn’t haul away the remains but just covered them with dirt. Mostly, anyway — if there was a foundation in place, it would have been hard to disappear completely.

    In which case, some backhoes might be an appropriate inspection tool. Or, since the site is dry, maybe ground-penetrating radar would yield informative data.

  3. hass (History)

    In short, we don’t know what the site was, what (or who) survived the strike, and where it is now . . . which should make for much spilled ink and jabbering on news shows about the “Syrian Threat”

  4. j house (History)

    You don’t scrape clean a site where a 22,000 sq ft building resided for nothing.
    It is obvious to the lay person Syria has good reason to do this. The question is, where is the post-strike imagery before they scraped it?
    Why didn’t the Israelis hit the pumping station structure for good measure?
    It is likely the construction was in a very early phase, but the Israelis took the opportunity to show Iran they will back their words with action.

  5. rico (History)

    comparing the two satellite images, I discovered something interesting: the hill to the east of the building was partially scraped, as if they had moved it to cover the remains. There is also something like a gate shortly before the access road makes a sharp left turn.
    I also found out that the dark line along the Euphrates is a railroad line and on the Oct 24 satellite photo, you can clearly see a fenced in railroad stop close to the pump station with an access road to the reactor site.

  6. Andy (History)

    To be fair, let’s consider the possibility that Syria intended to rebuild this building, whatever it was. Would they not “scrape” and flatten the area to place a new foundation on?

    Additionally, the two other structures in the facility, including the alleged pump-house, remain. It seems to me if Syria wanted to hide all evidence of a reactor, it would dismantle these as well. Of course that may be the intent, but something the Syrians have not yet accomplished.

    Hopefully ISIS will buy future imagery of this site to monitor progress to see what happens.

  7. yale (History)

    The Osiraq attack may have spurred Iraq into pushing parallel EMIS and (a failed) centrifuge enrichment program, but that is not the whole story.

    Saddam’s nuclear weapons program may have been “irresolute”, but so what?

    Having the capabilities in hardware, materials, and personnel, makes ‘resoluteness” irrelevent. That is the whole meaning of latent proliferation.

    After it invaded Kuwait, Iraq became “resolute”, ejected the IAEA, and raced to convert its HEU fuel cores into 1 or 2 atomic bombs.

    It was only after massive air attacks by the Coalition, did Iraq give up the attempt. The HEU was recovered after the war.

    Israel was not, and never will, allow its national survival to depend on how “irresolute” a mad dictator espousing death threats is.

    As Perlmutter pointed out at the time:

    For Begin, the prospect of an Iraqi nuclear capability, indeed, any Arab nuclear capability, was totally and irrevocably intolerable. It was a devastating weapon that he had no doubt would be used to try and destroy the Jewish nation, a holocaust in the flick of an eye. Begin approached the issue not only in practical terms, but from a passionately emotional and ideological stance.

    The UK was producing plutonium before it committed to atomic weapons. In France, its nuclear technocrats created its bomb program from its civilian program against the orders of the government. India, South Africa and Pakistan armed under civilian cover. Dimona is a civilian research facility.

    Inspections (ineffective in Iraq AND Iran)or no inspections, IAEA or no IAEA, if you have the means, weaponizing becomes simply the decision to do so – if you have the means.

    That is why the ridiculous IAEA is the chief proliferator on the globe, being not only compelled by mandate, but zealous to an unseemly degree, acting like a crack pusher in dumping atomic technologies into every nook and cranny of the planet.