Jeffrey LewisSyria and Nuclear Weapons, Again

Well, well, well.

It appears that Syria’s box-on-the-Euphrates is at least four years old and was spotted by US intelligence, which drew less dire conclusions:

A senior American intelligence official said yesterday that American analysts had looked carefully at the site from its early days, but were unsure then whether it posed a nuclear threat.

In 2003, you might remember that John Bolton had a massive fight with the US intelligence community over the degree to which the intelligence supported the claim that the Syria was pursuing nuclear weapons.

Here is a reading list, in case you want to check back in with that suddenly relevant story:

  • Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay, “CIA: Assessment of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction exaggerated,” Knight Ridder Washington Bureau, July 16, 2003, text.
  • Douglas Jehl, “Ex-Officials Say Bolton Inflated Syrian Danger,” The New York Times, April 26, 2005, A1, text.
  • Glenn Kessler, “Powell Aide Says Armitage, Bolton Clashed Apparent Supporter of U.N. Nominee Said to Have Questioned His Diplomatic Tone,” Washington Post, May 10, 2005, A2, text.

You can also read narrative description of the dispute between Bolton and the IC, including quotes from some depositions with involved officials, in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Report on Bolton’s nomination.

In particular, I am struck by paragraphs like these two:

D. Syria and Nuclear Weapons—Heritage Foundation Speech, April-May 2002


An INR analyst raised concerns that the new language on Syria’s possible interest in nuclear weapons technology was a “stretch,” implying existence of a Syrian nuclear weapons program when such a conclusion had not, in fact, been reached by U.S. intelligence. Similar concerns were raised by another element of the Intelligence Community. Although INR provided revised language that could be used on this topic, Bolton did not use it, opting instead to refrain from any discussion of a potential Syrian nuclear weapons program in his speech. He did not give up on what he wanted to say, however, but rather saved it for another day.

E. Syria and Nuclear Weapons, Again—HIRC testimony, June, July, September, 2003


The committee staff interviewed four individuals who confirmed that there was a protracted dispute over Bolton’s testimony to the Subcommittee. The first is an INR analyst whose name has not been made public, but who was involved in the clearance process for the Bolton testimony. The analyst stated that one issue, involving one of Syria’s WMD-related programs, was a “big sticking point.” The question was whether the judgment in Bolton’s draft was “sustainable.” This analyst described that judgment as “an attempt to take a piece of data that was far from definitive and draw a conclusion.” The analyst went on to say that the Intelligence Community had “reservations” about the information and how it was obtained, as well as the ‘‘soundness of the science’’ underlying it.

Bolton, by the way, “declined to say whether he had knowledge at the time about the site that the Israelis struck in September.”

But that headline, “Syria and Nuclear Weapons, Again” just sums up this whole fiasco.

Suddenly, I understand why the intelligence from Israel, as Kessler reported, was “restricted to a few senior officials under the instructions of national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, leaving many in the intelligence community unaware of it or uncertain of its significance.”

Because we’d already looked at the building and Hadley knew what the IC would say.


  1. Miles Pomper (History)

    I’d like to add a couple of shameless plugs to your list.
    An interview I did with Bolton in 2003 that involved Syria and an article about his confirmation hearings and discussion there of syria

  2. Michael Roston (History)

    I guess what’s driving me more bonkers here is how selective everyone is being. Remember El Shifa? It looks like we were pretty wrong about that purported chemical weapons facility. Why not this purported nuclear facility?

    And more importantly, will John Bolton always be with us? I mean, seriously, G-d forbid a North Korean disarmament and disablement deal should be George W. Bush’s one accomplishment, as it would after all take away Mister Ambassador’s only accomplishment of torpedoing the Agreed Framework.

  3. John (History)


    Actually the large square-top building which has apparently now been removed from the site has been on the site for over FIVE years. Shown below is a piece of an astronaut photo I cropped from an online collection accessible at a NASA website
    This photo was taken in September of 2002.

    The technical information about the photo I cropped this piece from is shown in the image below.

    I am currently looking for older photos online to see if I can find one where the building is not yet present so we can bracket the time frame over which the structure was built. Will keep everyone informed if I find one.

  4. Anonymous


    You often lambast the IC for drawing conclusions based on too little evidence in a manner that is biased toward policymaker/their pre-disposed positions. Yet, in commenting on the nature of the Syria issue, you are guilty of the same crime.

    You have repeatedly made slightly-informed speculation regarding the issue that reflects your own biases—which may still be right in this case—when there was no particular reason to do so. Why not be more objective, caveat your very limited information available on this issue, and hold yourself to the same standard to which you hold others?

  5. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    I haven’t lambasted the IC at all; rather the opposite. I note that the IC seems to have drawn rather more careful conclusions that we see in the press.

    In fact, I think, in general, I’ve been a staunch defender of the IC on this and other issues (Iraq) where hard-working analysts have been maligned by policymakers who seem to be believe they have a right to perfect intelligence.

  6. yale (History)

    A variety of issues:

    From ISIS: Evidence that the Syrians may have buried much of the rubble instead of removing it all:


    A cutaway of a MAGNOX illustrates a number of relevant points:
    1) The cylindrical bioshield encasing the reactor
    2) The massive base structures which would be quite likely buried under the covering the Syrians pushed over the site.
    IAEA inspection would identify it easily, no matter how fractured.
    3) The extreme height of a MAGNOX, including the fuel handling rig on top.


    The bioshield being poured for a Yongbyon reactor:


    Notice the great height of the MAGNOX reactor building at Yongbyon:

    and at Calder Hall in the UK:


    I played around with some shadow geometry and got some interesting tentative results.

    If we assume that the truck trailer stands 4 meters tall…

    then the “secondary structure” stands a reasonable 8 meters (about 26 feet)

    But the “Big Box” stands something like 24 meters (78 feet) high.

    If these calculations are even roughly correct, and the building is, as Syria claims, just a “warehouse”, what are they storing??

    Yale Simkin

  7. James (History)

    Even by the lax standards of public works, spending six years to produce an empty concrete-reinforced building does not indicate any particular urgency. At that rate the US might actually develop a working missile defense before they ever produced any plutonium.

    If that was what they intended at all. The story has changed a number of times, with each new leak breathlessly reported by a credulous media outlet as the real truth. Panamanian ships, military convoys, “nuclear materials,” plutonium “enrichment,” a light water plant, a heavy water plant, commandos taking soil samples from a site everyone now agrees was still years from having any uranium present…I mean, really. And let’s not forget the spy drama that was tacked on, as if any intelligence agency in history would admit to having a spy anywhere so soon after the event.

    Let’s take a moment and remind ourselves that all of these leaks are coming from the same people who earnestly asserted that Saddam Hussein had 30,000 liters of anthrax and was going to spray it on the East Coast of the US with drones launched from the decks of cargo ships. That he had moving vans with biological weapons production facilities. That North Korea was building a uranium enrichment plant. That Cuba had a bioweapons program.

    If the USG and the Israelis have a case to make, let them make it. But all this amounts to creating an unsourced, unproven, and unverifiable background of suspicion about Syria in the public mind. Right now the media is debating talking points anonymously inserted into the public arena by shady political operators with a record for alarmist fantasies. Until they come up with actual proof-hell, until they’re willing to go on the record with a real accusation-then I’ll file all this in the buying-votes-with-bombs category. Olmert needed a target and Syria was available.

  8. abcd (History)

    I’m confused, then. Sanger has implied in a story dated Oct 14 that the USG – at least at the administrative level – seems to have made up it’s mind regarding the site. The debate seemed to be about what to do with the evidence, not the nature of the evidence itself:

    Israel Struck Syrian Nuclear Project, Analysts Say
    New York Times by David E. Sanger and Mark Mazzetti
    October 14, 2007

    The New York Times reported this week that a debate had begun within the Bush administration about whether the information secretly cited by Israel to justify its attack should be interpreted by the United States as reason to toughen its approach to Syria and North Korea. In later interviews, officials made clear that the disagreements within the administration began this summer, as a debate about whether an Israeli attack on the incomplete reactor was warranted then.

    The officials did not say that the administration had ultimately opposed the Israeli strike, but that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates were particularly concerned about the ramifications of a pre-emptive strike in the absence of an urgent threat.

    “There wasn’t a lot of debate about the evidence,” said one American official familiar with the intense discussions over the summer between Washington and the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel. “There was a lot of debate about how to respond to it.”

  9. Allen Thomson

    John’s discovery of the building in photography from September 2002 has inspired me to create a fantasy which, if it should to turn out to be truth-like, might help explain some of the puzzling aspects of this story.

    To wit, why did Israel strike when it did and why are Syria, the US and Israel being so quiet about it?

    Here’s the fantasy, predicated on the assumption that the building actually was meant to house a reactor and presented as a time line. Comments and critique are invited.

    2000 or earlier – Syria and North Korea enter into an agreement to build a clandestine plutonium production reactor. Work commences.

    Sep 2002 – The main reactor building is at least externally complete, or close to it. Work continues on secondary structures and, inside the building, on the reactor itself.

    Undetermined – Israel and the US see the building in satellite photography and begin efforts to determine its purpose.

    Early 2007 – Israel succeeds in getting a spy into the building and learns that it contains a reactor. The reactor is complete or nearly so but as yet unfueled.

    Late spring 2007 – Israel presents its evidence to the US. The US is caught by surprise and can’t decide what to do.

    3 Sep 2007 — Israel detects a North Korean ship arriving at Tartus and believes that it’s carrying fuel for the reactor.

    5 Sep 2007 — Israel, faced with the prospect that the reactor will go critical in the immediate future, bombs it.

    How does this fantasy help with the puzzles?

    It says that Israel had run out of time and had to take immediate action. To wait until the reactor was running would have meant spreading radioactivity at least locally.

    Syria isn’t saying anything because they were engaged in very serious naughtiness.

    The US would rather this went away because it means that during virtually all of the Bush Administration and possibly before, US intelligence missed a major WMD program. The fact the program was already well underway at a time when the Administration was using non-existent Iraqi WMD as a casus belli doesn’t help. And, of course, it makes nuclear negotiations with North Korea awkward at a particularly bad time.

    Israel also has a bit of an intelligence failure problem, because they didn’t get definitive intelligence on what was in the building until a very late hour. Also, they may be trying to accomodate the sensitivities of the US.

  10. yale (History)


    A detail that I would change is in what NK would be delivering.

    Syria has uranium, but does not appear to have the capability to create tons of nuclear-grade graphite. It must be free of neutron-absorbers like boron at the parts-per-million rate.

    It takes state-of-the art processing equipment. NK has N.G.G is vast abundance. With its stockpile now unneeded for it large reactors, it is an easily transportable, high value export item.

    It would be interesting to see if Israel struck anything other than the Big Box site.

  11. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Look, I am still not convinced that this was a reactor.

    But, assuming it was, I agree that graphite is a plausible export for North Korea.

  12. Allen Thomson

    > Look, I am still not convinced that this was a reactor.

    I hope that none of us are convinced of anything about this. But, whatever it was, it has caused Israel, the US and Syria to do very weird stuff.

    I’ve been trying really hard to come up with alternate hypotheses that fit the facts as we seem to know them as of today, and, faute de mieux, the reactor seems to be leading the pack at the moment. Tomorrow it may be a different story.

  13. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    One possibility is that the Israelis were mistaken, either about the identification of the building as a reactor or its proximity to operation.

    I note the descriptions of internal debates that suggest Rice and Gates were less worried — either because it wasn’t a reactor or wasn’t close to operation.

    The case of Kumchang-ri is so instructive here. Your sentence reads almost exactly like that of Jack Pritchard (you are in very good company, obviously):

    The Defense Intelligence Agency made an “early assessment that this was happening and there was no other explanation for it,’’ said Charles “Jack’’ Pritchard, a former Army intelligence official who served as the deputy head of North Korea negotiating team.

    Other agencies were more skeptical. “Everybody threw up their hands and said we don’t know what it is, but we don’t have a better explanation,’’ said the former senior intelligence analyst.

    The Defense Intelligence Agency’s adamant conclusion “turned up in the New York Times before we were ready,’’ Pritchard recounted, referring to an August 1998 Page One story. That report put political pressure on the Clinton administration, already under fire for failing to press North Korea. It demanded access to the site, going to the brink of renewed confrontation.


    Two visits by American inspectors, using sophisticated technology, revealed that while this was a sensitive defense facility of an undetermined nature, “there was no way that it was nuclear,’’ said Pritchard, a conclusion he said was reaffirmed in a 2003 review of the incident.

    So, I understand what you are saying, but we have to be so careful about not assuming that “most likely” is likely at all.

  14. Mark Gubrud

    My version of AT’s “fantasy” is that sometime between 2003 and more recently, Syria or North Korea or both got cold feet, work stalled, and the deal may have gone sour. Finally the DPRK agreed with the US to discontinue and provide intel on the condition of the reactor project, and Israel was greenlighted to bomb it, as much to freak the Iranians and boost Olmert’s polls as to bury the Syrian bomb.

    The Syrian dirt plowing is for me very hard to explain if they had nothing to hide. But I can hardly blame them for seeking a deterrent after the Bush gang’s grand ambitions became apparent back in mid-‘02.

  15. blowback (History)

    The graphite used to moderate reactors appears to be manufactured from petroleum coke. North Korea seems to always be short of oil while Syria has its own oil wells. Surely, it is more likely that the Syrians would manufacture their own graphite.

    With a shortage of raw materials, would the North Koreans have produced more graphite than they needed for their three known reactors (5MWe and 50MWe at Yongbyon and 200MWe at Taechon)? Also the IAEA would know whether or not the graphite had been installed and would report if it went missing, so how likely is it that the North Koreans could divert the material to Syria?

    BTW, I strongly suspect that the “North Korean” ship that delivered “cement” to Tartous on September 3rd really did deliver cement. An Israeli “analyst” claimed that the ship was called the Al Hamed and had arrived from Damiatta in Egypt and had disappeared after unloading its cargo at Tartous. Examination of Egyptian ship reports shows that the Al Hamed (registered in South Korea) arrived in Damiatta from Tartous on October 12th and departed on October 13th. The waiting ship list for Tartous shows that the Al Hamed with a cargo of cement arrived off Tartous on October 14th from Damietta and has been waiting to unload ever since.

    Egyptian ship reports:

    Waiting list for Tartous:
    (there appears to be some problem with the Tartous website at the moment)

    There have been claims in the papers that both the Americans and the Israelis had had this ship under observation. If either government had real suspicions about the cargo the Israelis would have intercepted the ship by now with political cover from the Americans. As nothing has happened so far, it is pretty obvious that neither the Americans nor Israelis are at all concerned about the ship!

  16. tryggth (History)

    Shout out to Allen after all these years of missing reading you on Good to see you again!

    I think what we are seeing is one of two things:

    * whacking Syria as a warning prior to a crackdown in the occupied territories, or

    * whacking Syria in preparation of an Israel/US strike on

    This mysterious bombing hasn’t been the only destruction in Syria during the last few months. And though your theory has an Occam’s razor feel to it, I’m guessing that it was about something far more pragmatic but, because of incomplete information, slightly more complicated than the Occam solution.

    Given the amount of information that was immediately available on the Tartus vessel, but the public story going cold prior to entry to the Med., I am pretty well convinced that that boat had missile parts. And I have seen the odd/occasional reference to chemical carrying missiles which I am taking to be an ominization of the eventual leaking of what was really bombed.

  17. John (History)

    Jeffrey and Commenters,

    Since we are now formulating hypotheses, and there is no harm in collecting these to see which ones remain standing after we manage to eliminate some of them, I figured I’d gen up one of my own which seems to me to fit everything I have read about this issue.

    Suppose that Syria is basically correct in that the big boxy building was a warehouse. It was built as far away from Israel and international IAF-accessible borders as possible while still being situated on a river to make it difficult for Israel to attack without either flying over a large region of Syria and risking an encounter with Syrian air defense of using long-range F-15i’s equipped with drop tanks and flying mostly over Turkish and/or Iraqi airspace. Israel chose to fly over Turkish airspace using drop tanks to limit their Syrian airspace exposure to about 100 miles. The facility was built to warehouse SCUD missiles, parts, and chemical warheads designed to carry VX and Sarin to Israel from some other launchpoint. The “Secondary Structure” in the 23 Oct ISIS report was a chemistry lab and/or wastewater treatment facility designed to test the chemical viability of the warhead payloads and decompose this material when it went bad. The pumping station was designed to pump wastewater INTO the river rather than pump water out of the river. The boxy warehouse was built tall so that Syria could stand missiles up in it if it chose to. Earlier this year Syria attempted to mount a chemical payload to a SCUD which had been equipped with an explosive chemical dispersal system. The missile detonated the explosive due to some flaw in the SCUD design. Syria got the NORKS to fix the design flaw and ship some new redesigned SCUD parts to Tartus under a load of cement. Israel has moles inside of the Syrian military apprising them of this and they decided to bomb the SCUD warehouse facility after presenting a nuclear dossier to Washington. They presented a nuclear dossier rather than the SCUD dossier to Washington for three reasons:

    1. They felt that Washington would be more more rattled by a nuclear dossier than a chemical one and would be more likely to support Israel’s agenda.
    2. They deliberately leaked disinformation about their intelligence to avoid compromising Syrian agent(s) in the field.
    3. They did not want to give the facts to Washington for fear that Washington would leak this information and compromise their intelligence operation like they have in the recent past with Pakistani, British, US private corporate, and other sensitive intelligence. Comments anyone?

  18. yale (History)

    My image host seems to have pooped out, so I am re-posting pictures missing from an earlier post

    The bioshield being poured for a Yongbyon reactor:

    Notice the great height of the MAGNOX reactor building at Yongbyon:

    and at Calder Hall in the UK:

    I played around with some shadow geometry and got some interesting tentative results.

    If we assume that the truck trailer stands 4 meters tall:

    then the “Secondary Structure” stands a reasonable 8 meters (about 26 feet):

    But the“Big Box” stands over 24 meters (78 feet) high:

    Above is a side view of the “Big Box”. The red arrow points at a person-sized line for comparison
    If these calculations are even roughly correct, and the building is, as Syria claims, just a “warehouse”, what are they storing?? Dinosaurs?

    Yale Simkin

  19. Yossi, Jerusalem

    The Israeli president called this operation “spoilt milk” and according to a famous saying one shouldn’t cry over spoilt milk. I interpret this to mean the operation was a mistake.

    Anyway, if you want to keep an attitude of healthy sceptism, an alternative theory could be very helpful. A possible alternative is that the “big box” was used to work on and maybe launch long range missiles.

  20. abcd (History)

    There has been some discussion here and elsewhere that a useful method for understanding what was underneath that mystical box in the desert would be a series of satellite photos detailing the evolution of construction at the site from its earlier days. Given this insightful quote from the Broad/Mazzetti NYT article on 10.27, I wonder if the IC was one step ahead of us wonks four-seven years ago:

    “A senior American intelligence official said yesterday that American analysts had looked carefully at the site from its early days, but were unsure then whether it posed a nuclear threat.”

    The only thing holding the “reactor” angle of the story together seems to be the nearby pump on the Euphrates and the dimensions of the building. What, if any, other facility would require a water pump?

  21. James (History)

    Or some other industrial site. Eight stories is not especially tall. I think we’ve run into the limits of photo analysis. It’s a box. It could be lots of things. Why assume it’s a nuclear power plant? A suspicion, okay, but suspicions aren’t proof and Syria is an NPT participant. It’s not like they’re trying to bury or hide the site. It’s right there. Call them up and ask.

    The only reason to bomb it was for political effect and if they felt the need for a political effect then I doubt they vetted their “secret intelligence” too carefully.

  22. CKR (History)

    The comment has been made at least once above that Syria has been silent.

    In fact, members of the Syrian Foreign Ministry have at least twice strongly denied that the target was a nuclear reactor.

    Of course, making more information available and allowing access to the site would make the denials more credible.

    As long as we’re formulating hypotheses, I’ll continue to believe that something went wrong with the Israeli operation and/or intelligence. That would explain the greater silences on the parts of Israel and the US.

  23. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Maybe it was a Lego factory:

    I have finally had the pleasure of visiting the LEGO factory in Billund.


    The most cool thing about it all though, was the warehouse. Think Raiders of the Lost Ark (the closing scene where the Ark is archived in the gigantic warehouse filled with wooden crates) meets The Matrix – then you have an idea of the proportions of cool that we’re talking. A 100% automated 22 meters high warehouse that was operated by conveyor belts and 22 meter tall robots operating at dizzying speed and precision.

    Just imagine sitting in that warehouse with endless LEGO bricks to choose from, and six to ten 22 meter tall robots to help you find what you need…

    No word on the water requirements for Lego manufacturing.

  24. anon

    The bombing itself is not proof of the existence of a planned rector – that’s for sure.

    Can you measure the ring of the magnox bioshield, I assume it would fit into the building.

    We really need images where we see “a ring” to draw further conclusions or just after the bombing.
    Would it have been built before, while or after the box?

    Couldn’t the IAEA inspect the remains underneath the earth, I assume a reactor would have a really solid foundation?

  25. Gridlock (History)

    Isn’t Yongbyon gas cooled? What about Calder Hall?

    This would render the pumping station obsolete, surely? Similarly why build a pumping station to pump water into a river? That’s what gravity and osmosis are for.

    What happened to the “buzz” that Jeffrey reported, that this was a scud shipment?

    Given NK’s architectural procilivities I could even believe that the target was personnel – a 5 storey box could pass for the Pyongyang Hilton..

  26. spacemanafrica

    I believe the pump station was intended to supply water to the reactor, not draw it out. Also, the pump station is newer than the latest google earth tiles. I actually own a pumphouse and this one in Syria is about 3 times larger than mine which feeds a natural spring to a rural city supplying about 60% of the water needs for about 3500 connections at 16-20 million gallons a month if that helps anyone.

  27. yale (History)

    Important note:
    I am not trying to prove that the site is a reactor. I am just adding to the data pile that shows that the site does not exclude the nuclear possibility.

    Like I said before, the IAEA using a bulldozer would know in 10 minutes what the site is for. Do they not have inspection rights??

    Lego universe:

    Dr J may have hit on something. It could be a dual use facility located in godforsaken wilderness. Legos would make an excellent neutron, alpha and beta shield. Those pesky gamma rays are still a problem, but lead-lined RADIATION GUARDtm undies are available:

    To anon:
    The pictured ring appears to be for the abandoned larger Yongbyon reactors. The Calder Hall/Yongbyon bomb factory reactors had Bioshields about 12 meters or so in diameter.

    As to the need for water. Almost all reactors, no matter how the core itself is cooled, uses water to remove the heat from the plant.

    As to the large size of the pumping station, spacemanafrica points out how huge the capcity is.

    If its a reactor, 30 to 50 million watts must be dumped continuously. Without a cooling tower, thats a lot of water. – A heck of a lot more than a warehouse needs.

  28. Allen Thomson

    > If its a reactor, 30 to 50 million watts must be dumped continuously. Without a cooling tower, that’s a lot of water.

    50 MW is ~12,000 kilocalories/second (*). That heats up ten cubic meters of water by 1.2 degree C per second, or one cubic meter by 12 C/sec. I don’t know about pumping stations myself, but flow rates in the few-cubic-meters/sec range don’t strike me as huge. Corrections welcome.

    (*) I just love Google’s units conversion tool in the search bar.

  29. yale (History)

    AT wrote:
    …but flow rates in the few-cubic-meters/sec range don’t strike me as huge

    “Huge” is a pretty subjective measurement.

    6 cubic meters per second (or 1,600 gallons per second) does seem like a bunch to me.

    That equals 140,000,000 gallons per day.

    It would take 5 of these pumps, at 1/4 megawatt each to move that much water:

    Yale Simkin

  30. Andy (History)

    Stranger and stranger. A couple of comments.

    First of all, look at the location of this facility from the big picture:

    Notice anything odd about the location? If you zoom in, the river in this section bisects two bluffs. As a consequence, the adjacent land is not subject to flooding and the river likely flows faster and deeper than in the “green” low-lying agricultural areas that predominate to both the north and south all along the Euphrates. If one desired to build a reactor, would this particular section of river not be well suited? A reactor could be placed in close proximity to the river and a deep and narrow channel would provide easy pumping of cooling water.

    However, as Yale noted above, pumps require electricity. I’m still trying to obtain hi resolution imagery that will not cost me $400, but the reported “pump station” would require electrical power from somewhere. Perhaps someone with the requisite imagery could see if there are electrical lines and where they lead.

    Finally, at this point I’m relatively convinced this is not a SCUD facility for a few reasons. First of all, Syria already has developed facilities for such missiles – facilities with underground bunkers, wide paved roads, etc. If the shipment were Scuds, particularly a new variant, why not send them to an established, existing and more secure facility?

    Secondly, the razed facility lacks the kind of wide, paved roads and large, paved parking areas that one commonly associates with missile-related facilities.

    Additionally, the facility is , well, isolated. What purpose would an isolated scud facility serve that could not be served by Syria’s existing and more well developed facilities?

    Finally, the indications are that the US and Israel have been watching this facility for some time. One might postulate that in all that time the intelligence community might have imaged or otherwise noticed something scud-related, such as a MAZ parked outside or other Scud-related equipment. No indication of that so far.

    Finally, what is this:

    I’ll put forth some additional conjecture and suggest it might be a concrete mixing plant. Compare to this and this and this.

  31. Allen Thomson

    Concerning pumping stations:

    I was just looking at the 24 October post-strike picture and noticed that the line representing the putative water pipe from/to the Euphrates leads not to the former big building, but to the smaller one just south of it.

    And indeed, a key ABC News story of Oct 19 ( says, “The official said there was a larger structure just north of a small pump station; a nuclear reactor would need a constant source of water to keep it cool.”

    So I wonder if the building on the Euphrates identified as a pump station in might not be just one of two.

    Putative is a lovely word to have available in such circumstances as these.

  32. Allen Thomson

    Concerning hydraulics:

    Google Earth indicates that the lift between the Euphrates and the big building is around 80 meters and the length of the putative run up the wadi between the Euphrates building and the one south of Big Box is like 885 meters.

    I was trying to estimate the power needed to pump the before-mentioned cubic meters of cooling water per second: it should be (per second) imparted kinetic energy + imparted potential energy + friction losses. Kinetic and potential energy are easy, but, not being a hydraulic engineer, I don’t know how they calculate friction losses in a pipe. More research is needed.

  33. Yossi, Jerusalem

    I think the exact location of the facility was chosen so the big box wouldn’t be seen from a passing train or nearby road. It’s in a relatively deep and winding creek. Another consideration could be proximity to the site 5 clicks to the east. They are connected by many straight car tracks and what looks like half finished roads. The other site is probably older (because of the landscaping) and may housed the engineers and management (is it really a swimming pool there?).

    The “pump station” on the river could also be a boathouse or guardhouse in which case it wouldn’t need much electricity. It’s a relatively late addition so it could reflect the site activity level going up lately.

    The quick developments after a few slow years indicate some policy change. It could be that the site started as a military warehouse and was re-assigned following some event. My wild speculation is that following accidents in their main nerve gas facility the Syrians decided they need some temporary replacement. They probably wanted to fill new Scuds sent from Norkland via Tartus with nerve gas on their way south. Maybe they thought our site was far and safe from the Israelis, “security by obscurity” is a common fallacy.

    It seems the site was lightly fenced and not protected by anti-aircraft missiles, not what you would expect from a military reactor or a chemical warfare facility. This is a point in favor of the temporary facility theory. Maybe The Syrians planned to move there one of their new air defense systems so the Israelis had to act quickly.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if there is somewhere a bunker storing nerve gas. The Scuds were brought in a train, hauled less than a kilometer to the “big box” (its height is about twice the length of an ordinary Scud), fitted with a chemical warhead, filled with gas and sent again via train. The bunker may be near the concrete mixing plant, maybe even underneath it. It’s logical to locate such a plant near the place its product will be used.

    Letting our imagination go wild we could speculate that the “bioshield” photographed by the Mossad spy was used to protect the workers in case of an accident. It would contain an explosion of the warhead/propellant and trap nerve gas that may escape. Military gases are supposed to be heavier than air. The Scud was lowered into the bioshield and worked on then lifted up and out. I guess the last big accident the Syrians had taught them to be more careful.

    My point is that many speculations may be possible so why favor the nuclear one? Personally I prefer a speculation in which Israel made yet another mistake.

  34. Richard F.

    Thanks for your numbers. So your facility pumps about 30 l/s of water. To cool the CO2 from a 20 MWth reactor (assumption!) would require about 10 times more (losses are neglected) if direct cooling is used.

  35. Mad Dogs (History)

    The Syria Strike?

    This is a “story” constructed of connecting fanciful and imaginary dots. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. g

    The MSM has variously reported on the Israeli’s strike against a Syrian “Nuclear Facility”. There is a great deal of rumors about just what took place, how it was done and what the meaning of it is.

    Speculate along with me here.

    MSM reports state that Israeli F-15s, F-16s and at least one EW/ECM aircraft penetrated Syria’s borders to destroy a nascent Syrian Nuclear Facility. The original MSM reports also had “drop tanks” found in neighboring Turkey.

    Additionally, the original MSM reports had “claims” by unidentified Israelis that stated they had “successfully” spoofed the Syrian radar facilities so that the Syrians didn’t even “see” the Israeli aircraft. And it was also intimated by the same unidentified Israelis to be a “warning” to the Iranians who used the very same Russian-supplied radar, that these very same type of radar facilities in Iran would also never “see” an attack coming.

    Now, as many here know, it is de rigueur in the black world of intelligence, to “mask” ones operations with “constructed” cover stories. Cover stories that may contain partial truths, but those partial truths are designed to lead one away from the real story.

    Consider the previously described MSM “reports” as part of the “cover story”. They contain “partial truths” to lead one away from the real truth.

    Put on your tin-foil hat and allow me to “speculate” on that real truth.

    First, there were no Israeli F-15s, F-16s or EW/ECM aircraft involved in the Syrian strike.

    The US has recently been in the process of “retiring” the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighters (they are in fact not fighters at all, but really just light bombers). Per Wikipedia at

    “By late 2006, the Air Force had closed the F-117 pilot school, and announced the retirement of the F-117. The first six aircraft to be retired made the last flight on 12 March 2007…”

    Second, take a look at this article summary from the Jerusalem Post:

    “ » Israel » Article
    Oct 25, 2007 0:56 | Updated Oct 25, 2007 17:49
    US to speed up stealth fighter delivery to Israel

    In an effort to bolster the Israel Air Force in the face of Iran’s race toward nuclear power, the Pentagon has agreed to move up delivery of its newest stealth fighter to Israel by two years, to as early as 2012, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

    The Joint Strike Fighter…”

    Third, remember that George W. Bush would not comment under any circumstances about the Israeli strike on the Syrian “facility” and nor would any other highly placed Administration officials. The only thing that unidentified highly-placed Administration officials would say was that all of the information regarding this was tightly held to only a very few individuals in the Administration, and that they even excluded from almost all of the US intelligence and defense community.

    What if the following happened?

    The US provided its “retired” F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighters to Israel. In sufficient numbers that Israel could form up a squadron of F-117s.

    The US didn’t need the F-117s anymore, since the far more stealthy B-2 Spirit bomber was more efficient and effective as a bomber, and the fact that far more stealthy F/A-22 Raptors as fighters and attack aircraft are now in operational squadron-level service.

    The Israelis would be more than happy to have the stealthy “hand-me-downs” since they wouldn’t be seeing their newer F-35 JSFs until 2012. Too late for folks who are contemplating how to successfully strike Iran and live to strike another day.

    After Israeli pilots had undergone all necessary F-117 training here and in Israel, the “powers-that-be” in both Israel and the US, approved of a plan to operationally test the Israeli F-117 squadron with a real, live mission.

    The plan was to:

    1. Ingress into Syrian airspace undetected by their relatively new Russian-supplied radar facilities in order to prove that F-117 stealth was still effective. These same relatively new Russian-supplied radar facilities are also the mainstay of Iran’s radar systems.

    2. Destroy a nascent Syrian military facility (could be a nuclear reactor under construction or something else).

    3. Egress from Syrian airspace, again being undetected all the while.

    The rationale behind the plan was for the Israelis to “test-drive” their new F-117 squadron against a real, live enemy in preparation for a larger, more meaningul mission against a similarly-defended Iran.

    Another part of the rationale is that it would be less “political” trouble here in the US if it was the Israelis who took on Iran rather than the US. The added benefits to the Israelis would be a boost in their nation’s morale and ego if it were viewed on the world stage as another successful Israeli “Osirak Raid”, as well as the benefit the Israelis would derive of continued “strength” and “superiority” in the eyes of their Muslim foes.

    So there you have it. A fanciful tale, imaginatively told.

  36. Justin Reed (History)

    Mad Dog-

    This just isn’t that likely an explanation.

    The F-117 is a very distinct looking aircraft—not one that could be mistaken for any other aircraft in the world. Given the small size of Israel, and the proximity of air bases near population centers, I do not think there would be any way for Israel to operate F-117s without someone noticing.

    Also, the drop tanks are key—F-117 do not carry drop tanks because an external store increases an aircraft’s radar signature.

  37. Mad Dogs (History)


    I did say my “story” was fanciful and imaginative. 🙂

    But to answer your points, F-117s fly at night, and only at night (tis a reason for their name of Nighthawk). The rest of the time, they’re undercover in their shelters. Israelis have been known to keep a secret or two, and it is not too far-fetched to imagine that keeping a squadron of night-flying F-117s secret is beyond their means.

    Additionally, Israel has a mucho large unpopulated desert called the Negev and they do indeed have military facilities there including airbases. Not all of their airbases are co-located near populated areas.

    As for the “drop tanks”, according to the MSM reports, they were found in Turkey. One could imagine that they were “placed” there to beef up the cover story of non-stealthy aircraft conducting the mission. Nothing has been reported in the MSM that anyone saw the planes or for that matter saw planes dropping these fuel tanks onto Turkey’s territory.

    But again, I say my “story” is a fanciful tale, imaginatively told. 🙂

    And perhaps no more fanciful and imaginative than what has been reported by the MSM.

  38. hass (History)

    Meanwhile, back at the ranch, where the REAL, EXISTING nuclear weapons pose an ACTUAL threat to all humanity . . .

  39. Carey Sublette (History)

    The question is raised: how plausible is nuclear reactor graphite as a DPRK export?

    The argument against:

    The graphite used to moderate reactors appears to be manufactured from petroleum coke. North Korea seems to always be short of oil while Syria has its own oil wells. Surely, it is more likely that the Syrians would manufacture their own graphite.

    With a shortage of raw materials, would the North Koreans have produced more graphite than they needed for their three known reactors (5MWe and 50MWe at Yongbyon and 200MWe at Taechon)?

    Looking at some information about petroleum coke production (; we find that nearly all synthetic graphite is produced from petroleum coke. We can place an upper estimate on the amount of oil lost to the DPRK economy by comparing the relative costs of oil and synthetic coke. In 1999 the USGS reported a value of about $3000 a ton for coke. At the same time oil averaged around $20 a barrel, implying no more than 150 barrels of oil is required to produce a ton of coke (both as raw material and fuel for the energy intensive process).

    As part of the Agreed Framework, after 1994 the U.S. supplied the DPRK with 500,000 tons of oil annually which is about 4 million barrels. The DPRK undoubtedly had additional supplies of oil from China and elsewhere, so this is a lower limit on their resources during the period until the Framework broke down. We could call this at least 27,000 “graphite-ton-equivalents”, or at least 240,000 “GTEs” over 9 years.

    How much graphite is required for a substantial plutonium reactor? The B-reactor at Hanford, which was quite large for a proliferating nuclear program (250 MW as designed) used 2200 tons of graphite. Thus the diversion of 1% of this fuel should be more than enough to produce enough graphite to have lavishly supplied a very substantial nuclear weapons program.

    Short though the DPRK is in fuel, it is not so short that it couldn’t divert a tiny fraction of its fuel from heating stoves to making a high value export paid for in hard currency.

    How about the Syrians making it themselves? Well, sure. It is hardly the most challenging part of a nuclear weapons effort. But, looking at the document it is clear that significant sophistication in chemical engineering is required to do the purification to reactor grade, and it could be that Syria would be happy to skip this effort to accelerate a weapons program if it does not already have the native expertise.

  40. Yossi, Jerusalem

    About F-117 used by Israel in the Syrian air strike.

    I guess they could be kept secret and even modified to carry drop tanks. The tanks could be dropped before entering enemy air space so they wouldn’t spoil the stealth effect.

    What seems like a real problem are the reports on hypersonic booms during the air strike. F-117 don’t break the sound barrier and this can’t be easily modified.

  41. Yale Simkin (History)

    As Carey points out, it is feasable for NK to produce nuclear grade graphite for export (to feed the booming international market in pencils..)

    I would hope that as part of the inspections for the de-nuking of NK, very careful auditing of graphite production vs. stockpile inventory is done.

  42. Carey Sublette (History)

    In my post above, first paragraph on analysis after the quoted material, I was speaking of the cost of synthetic graphite not “synthetic coke” etc. My goof.

  43. Andy (History)

    Israel did not need the F-117 for this strike, even assuming the US was willing to export this technology to the Israelis and even assuming it could be done in secrecy. After all, the Israeli’s would at least require training on the aircraft.

    As I have noted here before, Israel penetrated the super-MEZ around Damascus in 2003 to bomb a Palestinian training camp – in other words the Israeli’s penetrated the heart of Syrian Air Defense. The Syrian Air Defense system has not substantially improved since then. Striking a target deep in Syrian territory, easily reached without entering any serious Syrian SAM coverage is much less audacious that the 2003 strike. I don’t quite understand why so many continue to believe this was some amazing feat on the part of Israel.