Jeffrey LewisSyria Tidbits

Chris Nelson is now convinced of the reactor story, based in part on Chris Hill’s refusal to confirm or deny in Congressional testimony.

… a former directly involved official concluded, “today Hill said he couldn’t say, or not. That says ‘yes’, because if not, you just SAY not!”

Nelson-san is the much respected collector of gossip. So, the consensus is that the IC thinks this was a reactor under construction with North Korean assistance.


The second, question, however, is whether the intelligence is correct.

I continue to point out that we do make mistaken identifications — take, for example, Kumchang-ri or Tarhuna — cases that were, in their own day, “slam dunks” to use the parlance of our times.

The site is sketchy as all hell, no doubt about it, but so were those empty tunnels in North Korea and Libya.

If you look five clicks east of the site, there is a secure facility with a large building that is about the same dimensions — 47 m x 45 m. No one, however, is suggesting that is a reactor. “Imagery intelligence,” the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction wrote, is “only one piece of the collection effort against WMD, and will have to be used in conjunction with information from other sources.”

This doesn’t mean that the Syrian facility wasn’t a reactor. It means, based on the public evidence, we don’t know what whether it was a copy of Yongbyon or Bashar al-Assad’s naked swimming pool. The only way to know is to get inside.

So, the real key is this supposed HUMINT obtained by Israel. As far as I can tell, the only indication of this is from Martha Raddatz at ABC who claimed Israel “managed to either co-opt one of the facility’s workers or to insert a spy posing as an employee. As a result, the Israelis obtained many detailed pictures of the facility from the ground.”

Frankly, I would have preferred IAEA inspectors to some disgruntled construction worker with a drinking problem.

Of course, Raddatz’s source also claimed it was a concrete cylinder, not a big box. So, I get the sense (s)he was passing along a little RUMINT.


For analytic completeness, we need images of the site between the strike and the clean-up operation.

Israel, for example, might have missed (at the very least, Syria would want to complicate any post-strike assessment) or Syria, I suppose, may even have dismantled the facility before the strike. I doubt both, very much, but I’d like the pictures, thank you.


  1. Maggie Leber (History)

    Mayby nobody thinks the other site is a reactor because reactors don’t usually have landscaping screening the perimeter walls from inside view. Those sure look like shrubs or trees to me, which probably require irrigation.

    Not sure about your assessment of that second image as a “box”. Instead of another building with 150’ square footprint, I see two 40’ x 140’ buildings spaced 50’ apart; the space between them is pretty close to the same color as the nearby paving.

    I’d be willing to believe that blue rectangle is a swimming pool, though.

    Makes you wish for the good imagery product, of course.

  2. Andy (History)


    I might point out that the utility of imagery intelligence for wholly underground facilities as compared to standard, above-ground structures is completely different. With an open structure, like the Syrian facility Israel apparently bombed, it’s possible to follow the construction in some detail on a frequent basis through imagery. With underground facilities one can’t know for certain their purpose based on imagery since there is no way to image what’s actually being constructed in the tunnels.

    Now, about the concrete cylinder vs a big box. I might point out again that the concrete cylinder could be INSIDE the big box. It would make sense pour all that concrete first and then build the building around it.

    So what we really need, and what I bet the US intel community has, is detailed imagery showing the construction from when the site was first identified. After all, what might one divine about Natanz if the only imagery we had available was post-construction? Not much I would imagine, and it seems to me that without earlier imagery of the Syrian site detailing the stages of construction, it’s difficult for us to determine what this thing was.

    Finally, let’s assume for a minute that there was a large , round, reinforced concrete cylinder inside that building. Are there any alternatives for such a facility besides a reactor?

  3. Allen Thomson

    While the reactor story seems to have assumed the lead now, I endorse jeffrey’s call for caution. More than once when I was toiling and moiling inside the Beltway we had multiple lines of evidence pointing to a conclusion — which subsequently turned out to be dead wrong.

  4. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    Your point is taken — I did make some effort to refer to them as tunnels so as to not obscure that important difference. (In an earlier post, I mentioned Baotou which is straight mistake about the purpose of a big box.)

    I think a large concrete cylinder would be another crucial detail. (Although I think I know what reactors look like, sadly I don’t know much about other facilities that would look like reactors at early stages of construction, if that makes any sense.)

    It just seems to me that we are getting one side of the argument, for obvious political reasons. From a method standpoint, I can only observe the bias and point to the limits of the available information.

    At some level this is a threshold question — what do you want to do about the intelligence? Is it conclusive enough to carefully monitor and get people on the ground? Yes. An airstrike? Seems less than helpful, given what we don’t know. Sink the 6 Party Process? No way.

    Maggie Leber’s point about detailed imagery throughout the process is a good one. I hope we do have it, although the earlier press reporting — and it seems so confusing at this point — suggested that the Israeli’s saw it and we didn’t.

    As for the other box, I can see it as two buildings, as well. (I don’t think it is a reactor, of course.) It is blurry, isn’t it?

  5. Andy (History)

    Sorry, one more thing to consider.

    Let us suppose this was simply the standard steel-framed, light industrial building it appears to be, without many hundreds of cubic yards of poured concrete inside. In such a circumstance, six weeks to clean-up the site does not seem extraordinary:

    “It’s a magic act — here today, gone tomorrow,” said a senior intelligence official. “It doesn’t lower suspicions; it raises them. This was not the long-term decommissioning of a building, which can take a year. It was speedy. It’s incredible that they could have gone to that effort to make something go away.”

    I might additionally suggest that “decommissioning” a facility that’s recently been visited by several JDAM’s might not take too long regardless of its construction.

    Finally, had I access to additional imagery, one thing I would look for is a nearby concrete plant. A good concrete plant is generally a requirement for the series of large pours that would be necessary for the alleged reactor. One naturally would need a lot of concrete, but such large pours require extensive coordination and timing to ensure uniform curing and consistency once cured – something that becomes easier the closer the plant is to the construction site.

  6. Allen Thomson

    > It would make sense pour all that concrete first and then build the building around it.

    But if you wanted to hide the details from eyes in the sky, wouldn’t it make sense to put up at least a temporary roof before starting to pour?

    > what I bet the US intel community has, is detailed imagery showing the construction from when the site was first identified.

    I bet the same thing, but one of the interesting parts of the story is that the US apparently hadn’t identified the site until the Israelis pointed it out last June or July. And if the roof was up by then, then we just have pictures of roof — plus, of course, trucks and suchlike around the building.

  7. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Could one or the other of these sites (or both) be decoy(s)?

    A decoy would be easy to ‘clean up’ and level if there is nothing really there to begin with.

  8. mike

    This makes little sense at all. Would the Syrians think that any completed facility would be ignored? It would only be a matter of time before questions were raised about such a facility through imagery or humint – and subsequently turned to dust by the Israelis. Even with a ‘going out of business’ sale from NK to build it now I just find the whole idea remote. Does Syria have that kind of money to waste on a facility they have virtually no hope of protecting?

    So what other kinds of facilities would require a pump station (and perhaps a rail line if another poster is correct)? Assuming a military function, could it be related to the temporary storage or arming of scuds?

  9. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I’ve seen better imagery of the other “box” now and it is DEFINITELY two buildings.

  10. MarkoB

    I agree that it is far too early to make a hard and fast call on whether this was a nuclear reactor BUT it seems to me that everybody is missing the big picture here. Let us assume that Syria indeed was working on a small reactor to produce fissile material for a bomb. (1) Why go to the Norks when Syria has a strategic partnership with Iran? This would tell us something about the Iranians and their propensity to aid proliferators.(2) The whole thing, if the story is true, was very much in the early stages of construction. This would reflect a strategic decision made very recently. Why? Surely it is the external threat that Syria perceives. Bush administration foreign policy is the main driver here…if the Baker/Hamilton recommendations were implemented I doubt whether matters would have proceded as they have, again assuming the story to be true.

  11. John (History)


    If you have $105 to spend you can go to, click on the Image Library link, click on Search Criteria, put in Catalog ID 10100100071CCB01, put a check mark in the Basket box, click Submit Basket, and order the August 28, 2007 DG satellite image of the site in question. Copy and paste the following URL into your browser address window to see the properties of this image:

    I am assuming that the cost of this image is $105 because digital images sold through DG’s GlobeXplorer division are priced at $105.

  12. blowback (History)

    The building looks now pretty much as it did in 2003 according to US News.

  13. joseph (History)

    Here’s something from Debka FWIW:

    “1. It now transpires, according to DEBKAfile’s military sources, that there was not one Israeli operation in Syria but two: One targeted the unfinished nuclear reactors at At Tibnah east of the Euphrates River and the other, a military site. North Korea was involved deeply in both these Syrian projects – and not only the nuclear reactor.

    2. The critics of Rice’s policies, some of whom administration officials briefed on the Israeli operations in Syria against a pledge of confidentiality, are suggesting that Syria had at least one other active partner as well as North Korea and Iran in its nuclear program.”

  14. pw

    Some more speculative questions.

    If the box was the target of the Israeli attack and therefore presumably of high value to the Syrians, would one not expect at least some air defences near the site? Has anyone seen any possibly related SAM sites on the satellite imagery?

    If Israel would attack a Syrian reactor under construction, would one not expect the Israelis to wait until the reactor had reached an advanced stage in order to maximise the damage? Or should we assume that the Syrians had unexpectedly reached such an advanced stage, years before their allied and technically more advanced neighbour Iran would have reached that stage.

  15. Nell (History)

    If the Israelis had “many detailed pictures of the facilities from the ground” or any decent intel, why would they not take it to the IAEA in order to wrong-foot the Syrians there?

    Why are they permitted to bomb on the basis of sketchy or nonexistent evidence — essentially U.S. say-so — and not a peep of public protest is heard?

    What other country would be permitted to bomb a neighbor at will?

    The hypocrisy surrounding this issue is sickening.

  16. Mark Gubrud

    Tentative conclusions:

    1. The Syrians were having the NORKs build them a Pu-production reactor, probability 0.95.

    2. The NORKs sold the Syrians out, an unwritten part of, if not the key part of, the NK deal, probability 0.6.

    3. Chris Nelson and Jeffrey Lewis are not infallible, probability 1.0.

  17. noname

    totally speculating: how about that both Israeli and US intel missed the site, and the North Koreans offered the intel. Maybe it is not an either or the US/Israeli issue.

    pouring concrete: the Natanz site had huge concrete piles in starfish structures if i remember correctly, but the site is also way bigger than the Syrian “thing”. They would not need that much concrete. Couldn’t the concrete come from a site 2mi to the south?
    There are some truck tracks and a street to and from Assad’s desert sauna.

    What about the village people? They must have noticed something….

  18. R.H


    I’m at a loss as to why you’re so skeptical about the possible existence of a clandestine Syrian nuclear facility.

    It seems unlikely that Israel would undertake such an audacious raid for any purpose other than to preserve Israel’s regional strategic primacy.

    The nature and value of the target must have been sufficiently clear to Israeli decision-makers, who proceded in spite of the inherent risk of serious escalation.

  19. anon

    It seemed unlikely that the United States would undertake such an audacious invasion of Iraq for any purpose other than preserve its strategic primacy?

    The nature and value of the target (Iraq) must have been sufficiently clear to US decision makers.
    Nothing is always that clear, especially in international security.

    I am skeptical like ACW until more hard evidence emerges. Then I’d be willing to be convinced.
    But even then, make a public case and send in the inspectors, not a JDAM.
    WMD-skepticism is exactly was this site is for…

  20. tryggth (History)

    R.H. –

    I think after the last Lebanon war Israel wants to make sure nothing like that mild disaster happens again. Avoiding a repeat, in the context of what happened, might justify an audacious action.

  21. Michael Roston (History)

    “So, the real key is this supposed HUMINT obtained by Israel.”

    Curveball. Curveball, Curveball, Curveball, Curveball.

  22. Allen Thomson

    > If the box was the target of the Israeli attack and therefore presumably of high value to the Syrians, would one not expect at least some air defences near the site? Has anyone seen any possibly related SAM sites on the satellite imagery?

    I’ve wondered about that too. There are no obvious air defenses nor, for that matter, much in the way of security at all.

  23. Charles (History)

    I’m skeptical that this is was reactor construction, but:
    1. There is photography of the cleanup at,,2200142,00
    2. The difference between the two sites is water.

  24. R.H


    Notwithstanding the obvious shortcomings of intelligence in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, it just seems a little fanciful to me to think that israel might risk a major regional conflagration to bomb anything but a target of the highest strategic value.

    To me, this seems to narrow it down to a few possibilities.
    1. incomplete nuclear reactor

    2.Chemical or biological weapons facility

    3. medium or intermediate range ballistic missile facility.

    Given the urgency with which Damascus clearly undertook the clean-up effort, it would appear that options 1 and 2 are the most probable.

    Indeed, the remote geographical placement probably reflects the extent to which Damascus intended on keeping it both secret and beyond easy operational access for the IAF.

  25. Maggie Leber (History)

    Apparently Syrian air defense is a combination of mobile launchers (Tor M1) or long-range area defenses (Pechora). That those defenses were totally penetrated is a matter of widespread discussion online. Some folks believe a major motivation for the raid was a demonstration to the Iranians of how weak the systems they rely on are to a modern electronic attack.

  26. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    The other analytic possibility is that Israel concluded, incorrectly, that it was a nuclear reactor.

    In terms of the clean up, I think some of Andy’s points are worth noting — the clean up might have been much less difficult if the building was something less than a reactor.

  27. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Mark: Jeffrey Lewis is not infallible has a probability of 1.0?

    Impossible, he is the Pope.

    Dr Jeffrey:

    What about the analytical possibility that the whole building / complex is a decoy?

    Surely the Syrians have learned from Ossirik, the Iranians and Libyans about what it takes to build a facility that is safe from anticipated attacks from Israel.

    I see close to zero probability that they would put a sensitive facility (SCUDs, non-Civilian Nuclear Reactor, weapons facility) above ground in a highly visible, large, box shaped structure.

    I would not dismiss that there may be things ‘on site’ buried deep underground.

    The scale / speed of the cleanup suggests that they did not have to remove a lot of concrete (if they did, that should have been visible on someone’s remote sensing systems).

    Removal of large amounts of reinforced concrete is a laborious task unless they chose to dynamite it first. Demolition is likely to be seen and heard. Even if the physical destruction is not seen, the movement of earth movers, dump trucks can be seen.

    The other option is that the foundation is just buried —- which means it is not that through a clean up job and with a little work (ground penetrating radar, excavation, etc.) it can be partially revealed.

    I suspect this facility is a decoy —- that would explain the Syrians being so closed mouth about it.

    The question is, if that is the decoy, where is the real facility if there is one?

  28. Andy (History)


    Much has been made of the supposed “penetration” of the Syrian air defense network, but a a quick look at the locations of deployed missiles shows there are significant gaps in air defense coverage (picture is from this blog) You’ll notice that the “reactor” is nowhere near any missile sites.

    So the only threat to Israeli aircraft would come from short-range missiles, AAA, and aircraft – none of which the Syrians are any good at using at night. From the reports we’ve seen, the Israeli aircraft exploited the border with Turkey – so it’s likely they ingressed and egressed from the Mediterranean along the border. Such routing further complicates Syrian air defense for a variety of reasons.

    Also, as I noted in a comment on an earlier thread, the Syrians only began delivery of the Tor-M1 system in August. It will take time for them to learn, integrate and deploy the system. I speculated that the timing of the attack might be a result of an Israeli fear that the Tor-M1 would be moved to defend the site – an eventuality that would greatly complicate an airstrike.

    Jeffrey hasn’t posted on it yet, but the new imagery out showing the building on 2003 satellite imagery only confuses the picture, in my view.

    Finally, it should be noted that Syria struck a purported terrorist training camp just outside of Damascus back in 2003. 10 miles outside of Damascus is a strike into the heart of Syria’s air defense and it was probably a big factor in the decision to acquire the Tor-M1.

  29. j house (History)

    You have to consider in the analysis why the Israelis would go to the trouble of destroying the building in an air attack, and all the associated risks that go along with it.
    It is doubtful they did it to win an election, or, even send a message.
    In addition, consider precedent (Osirak).
    Why this building and not the thousands of others in Syria?
    Technical analysis is great, but not very useful when you ignore the fact that it is clear an airstrike was conducted against it and considerable effort was made to cover up the results. Now where is that post-strike image 24 hrs past zero hour?