James ActonWhy now?

First off, the Syrian video is now public:

Online Videos by Veoh.com

Second, I have one more question to add to Jeffrey’s list: “why now?”

This has been bugging me for the last 24 hours.

Prima facie it makes no sense. The US administration commits to a deal with the North Koreans under which the DPRK is not (yet) required to declare its assistance to Syria (if indeed it occurred). So, why encourage opposition to the deal within the US by showing evidence of said assistance?

I can see three possible reasons (not mutually exclusive), none of which I find entirely satisfactory:

1. Elements within the US administration opposed to the deal have convinced the President that this evidence ought to be shown, in an effort to wreck the deal. I have a slightly hard time believing this because it seems Chris Hill has achieved buy-in for the deal at the very highest levels. But, presumably there is still some strong opposition and such a messy bureaucratic compromise would hardly be unprecedented.

2. The release of the evidence was aimed at increasing pressure on Syria. On balance, I still think this is a bigger part of the reason than others seem to. However, it’s not clear to me what has prompted US desires to pressure the Syrians.

3. The US has been itching to release this evidence all along (see points 1 and 2 above for possible reasons) but hasn’t been able to because it would compromise the source (from Israeli intelligence?) who obtained it. If that source has now been ‘secured’ then the barrier to presenting the evidence would have been lifted. Again, this is also possible but still feels unsatisfactory as an explanation.

“Why now?” still seems like a very interesting question.


  1. S. Harnisch (History)

    A fourth explanation is also plausible: The US negotiation team with North Korea needs additional leverage to pressure Pyongyang on past nuclear cooperation beyond Syria, most likely Iran. In addition, the publication of this material sends an interesting message to Iran: the United States is willing to go a long way – compromising intelligence source – to legitimize Israeli preemptive action against suspicious sites in a n axis of evil state. It may also indicate how frustrated the USG is with recent diplomatic action by the EU3+3.

  2. Shay Begorrah (History)

    It could simply be news management. A strategy of tension needs stories to feed it and it has been a while since Cheney’s cadre has found/manufactured one. This keeps the horrifying spectre of an arab nuclear deterrent on the news radar.

    It also distracts nicely from the recent Israeli spy case.

  3. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Could the explanation be that these events are related:

    a) The transfer of missile components to Taiwan.

    b) Is there a relationship between Taiwan’s nuclear and missile programs and DPRK’s?

    If they will sell to Syria, why not Taiwan?

    c) Protests over Tibet

    One of the outcomes of releasing this video at this time is to undermine China further during a very difficult year.

    The relationship between DPRK and China has been strained even before this video, with Chinese more and more reluctant to subsidize DPRK.

    This issue would mean that the balance of power in the six party talks decisively tip in the direction of the US and its allies —- who have the means to bail out DRRK.

    Is the goal to “turn” DPRK?

    Just what is the role of Taiwan in all this?

  4. FSB

    Yes, the Intel Comte. also raised this issue in relation to 6-party talks.

    They felt they were being manipulated by the timing of the whole affair. You can listen for yourself:


    and listen to the clip marked:

    “Congressional Remarks on N. Korea-Syria Nuclear Cooperation”

    There is also some stuff at:


    And the BBC says:
    “The BBC’s James Coomarasamy, in Washington, says the question being asked by some in the US capital is whether the reactor statement is designed to reinforce those diplomatic efforts or an attempt by some in the administration to undermine them. “

  5. FSB

    And WSJ is reporting that there are new Iranian arms caches in Iraq

    That, and the Syria video release, makes for a nice one-two punch to start the ball rolling to pounce on Iran.

  6. Anon

    Quite simply, Hill did not have buy-in at the highest levels. Cheney and the Hawks wanted the deal dead and this is the way to kill it. This is targeted towards congress- they now cant get behind the deal and so its DOA

  7. darrelplant (History)

    I’ll tell you what really doesn’t make sense: Not releasing this before the strike. The intelligence source was blown as soon as the strike took place.

    I have to say, too, that the photos didn’t seem particularly recent. The claim that the reactor was about to go online may be true, but the building shown in the photos wasn’t a picture of a ready-to-go reactor facility.

  8. Bruce Klingner (History)

    The Bush administration was likely compelled to divulge intelligence information on North Korean support to a covert Syrian nuclear program in response to Congressional demands that hindered future progress in the Six Party Talks. Congress indicated it was unwilling to provide funding for continuation of disablement activities of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, a waiver of the Glenn amendment, nor agreement to remove North Korea from the terrorist list until it had received requisite intelligence briefings.

  9. AP

    The evidence seems pretty strong, but I would have to agree with those wondering why Israel/US didn’t go to the IAEA/UNSC first.

    Off the top of my head, I can envision a few possible explanations why this didn’t happen:

    1) Israel did not want to warn the Syrians that they knew, and therefore alert the Syrians to the possibility of a strike

    2) Israel did not want to reveal its sources/methods

    3) Israel does not trust the international community to do anything; even if the the facility is revealed to IAEA/UNSC, Syria would simply deny/stall until they produced sufficient amounts of fissile material

    Although all of these reasons appear legitimate on the surface, all have major problems and none of them are all that convincing.

    For (1), it doesn’t seem that alerting Syria would alter Israel’s capability to conduct a strike. Israel has had its way with Syrian air defenses (anyone remember Israel buzzing Syrian President Assad’s house in 2006?). Even in full alert status, the Syrian air defenses could not prevent a large scale Israeli strike.

    Revealing sources and methods (2) also doesn’t make much sense. The strike itself probably already did this, not to mention the intel just leaked. Even if this were the case, Israel could have waited and secured its sources/methods first, because…

    (3) there was no rush. The facility was still “weeks and months” (well, which is it?) away from beginning operations; therefore, it would have been a while before Syria was able to remove significant amounts of usable weapons-grade plutonium. Therefore, Israel had time to go the Int’l Community. Even if Syria denied the existence of the facility and prevented inspections, Israel could always destroy the facility later down the road. It’s not like they were going to move the facility or material without anyone noticing.

    Anyway, that’s what came to me off the top of my head. It doesn’t make sense why the Israelis couldn’t at least have a dual-track strategy (go to int’l community for a certain amount of time, and if nothing is done, THEN strike the facility). Can anyone else think of other possible reasons why the Israelis would not go to the international community first? This to me is the most perplexing unanswered question.

  10. SQ

    Here’s another thought. Since late in 2006, the Director of National Intelligence has felt compelled to release the “key judgments” of no fewer than five National Intelligence Estimates, despite clear distaste for doing so. He did so because the documents would be selectively leaked otherwise.

    One possibility is simply that the story was in the news, and not necessarily coming out in a way that reflected the actual work of the Intelligence Community.

    So here again, perhaps, we have the Community in a “Federal Reserve” capacity, creating a baseline for public discussion of intelligence issues. Which has a way of stirring the pot unpredictably.

  11. b (History)

    Hi all,

    I have made screenshots of the photos used in the video-presentation.

    Seems unconvincing to me, especially the photographs they used.

    The 30 something pictures are here

    Some additional thoughts on these

  12. SQ

    So, according to the text posted by Jeffrey, the first (and I’d assume main) answer to “why now” is:

    “We are at the point in the Six-Party talks where we believe going public will strengthen our negotiators as they try to get an accurate accounting of North Korea’s nuclear programs. We believe and hope that it will encourage North Korea to acknowledge its proliferation activity, but also to provide a more complete and accurate disclosure of their plutonium activities and their enrichment activities as well.”

  13. JC

    “There was no rush?” I would think there might be fairly serious enviromental consequences blowing up a reactor AFTER it had been loaded with tens of tons of uranium. That’s never been done, and it would serve as a far larger source of Syrian outrage.

  14. j house (History)

    It is odd that many of the posters here cannot accept that NK and Syria would cooperate on a nuclear project and always look to some dark conspiracy within the Bush administration.
    Call a spade a spade..it is what it is. Did we really land on the moon? Perhaps that satellite shoot-down was an elaborate ruse to put a BMD system in Europe?
    Get real…
    The fact that the reactor didn’t even have power lines (as well as its location)gives even more credance that it was intended to produce bomb fuel, not electrical power.

  15. عليرضا عسگری (History)

    J. House , you have me convinced of everything but the moon thingy. Did we really land on the moon? MAYBE BABY [please don’t post]

  16. anon

    There are actually two “why” questions.
    First, why didn’t the US or Israel divulge more information immediately after the strike? Second, why did they choose to release it now—and in a very scripted format? So, maybe 2 1/2 questions.

  17. Yossi, Jerusalem

    Why now?

    I guess because the Norks are perceived now as weak so it’s a good time to beat them into submission…

  18. AP

    JC, I understand why someone would not want to hit a reactor loaded with uranium. However, I don’t at all buy that “environmental consequences” were so significant a consideration for two nuclear weapons states (which have other, larger environmental concerns by the way) that they would seriously risk undermining the entire nonproliferation regime for the sake of the environment.

    And, seriously, who cares about “Syrian outrage” at the point where you are destroying illicit nuclear reactors? Is Syria really going to lead a charge at the UN to punish Israel for the environmental damages related to the destruction of an illegal nuclear reactor? That doesn’t make much sense to me.

    And it would also seem that destroying the facility after it became operational would emit undeniable proof (via radiation, etc.) that the box was indeed a nuclear facility, providing a counterweight to any “environmental” concerns. Now, Syria will, nuclear facility or not, deny this as an American-Israeli ruse. And after Iraq, there will undoubtedly be states that will tend to agree—and I can’t blame them.

    What would be a more substantial argument against destroying an active facility would be contamination against people, health hazards, etc.. However, the facility, as many have noted, seems pretty isolated. Does anyone else have a better grasp on what the health consequences of such an attack would be?

  19. LS (History)

    Can anyone else think of other possible reasons why the Israelis would not go to the international community first? This to me is the most perplexing unanswered question.

    It would indicate a willingness to defer to the U.N on such decisions. This would raise questions why every other U.N. resolution demanding Israel retreat from occupied Palestine shouldn’t also be respected by Israel. Keeping a front of indifference to the international community by both Israel and the U.S. has had little negative impact on either country.

  20. rlawjdska (History)

    Pressure for proliferation will continue for as long as the recalcitrant members of the nuclear weapons club refuse to engage in decommissioning of their stockpiles. congrats to syria on what appears to be a fine attempt and lets hope the next one is successful. respek!

  21. FSB

    j: the satellite shoot down was certainly not conducted for the reasons proferred.

    That is clear as day.

    In any case, if you don’t like what a country is doing does not give you a right to bomb it.

    If you do accept such logic, be prepared for terrorism as that will be these countries’ only answer to you, and Israel.

  22. FSB

    JC: why would you have to bomb it before or after?

    Why not consider that it is Israel’s illicit programme that has encouraged Syria and stop that belligerent country’s nuclear weapons programme in the first place?

  23. RBMK-1500 (History)

    The discussion about going to the international community to solve this issue is quaint. Israel and the US have learned that creeping nuclearization by states will be tolerated and even assisted by the UN and others.

    I believe that the entire attack was kept uniquely quiet afterward to help Syria save face and avoid a larger conflict in the region. Had the US and Israel gone to the international community first and then later destroyed the reactor, the political fallout and risk of open conflict would have been exponentially greater.

    We also can’t assume that Israel had active intel on this site. If you want to quietly and safely destroy the facility, your only chance is to do so without the fuel on site. Once the pumping system was good to go, the facility could have received fuel at any moment. Every truck driving to the facility could have been carrying a fuel shipment that would have greatly complicated the entire quiet destruction mission.

    If the “Cheney kabal” had really wanted to start more wars and destroy the six-party talks (its supposed raison d’etre), it would have been much better to push this issue to the UN first. We know Isreal would have struck eventually and then it would be impossible to gloss over the Syrian North Korean nuclear partnership. We might have even been able to provoke a regional war between Israel and Syria on top of killing the talks.

    Face value says that they are releasing this now for the exact reasons the briefer claimed. Congress is demanding answers and tensions are much lower now. The community can provide much clearer proof. Proof that sadly must be much more rigorous after the failures in Iraq.

    If it wasn’t a reactor that was part of a covert nuclear program, please tell me what it was!

  24. Dana Jones (History)

    My question is this, once the reactor was started, how long to production of sufficient levels of plutonium for bomb making? My understanding is that this type of reactor would take at least a few years to produce an amount for a bomb. And there were no processing facilities on site, so just where were they planning on doing that?
    Also, one other thing, if it really was a reactor, how come no anti aircraft missile sites around it? Come on, you would think that they would have a few mobile missiles nearby.

  25. JC

    The after action photos are what made the case. They were not digital enhancements, just Sat photos. When the roof collapsed it was basically a interior photo. After Clinton bombed the Sudanese chemical factory, they begged for inspectors to see whether it was weapons related. Why would Syria not take advantage of the enormous propaganda victory if it were innocent?

  26. FSB

    RMBK-1500: if you support bombing a sovereign country, then be prepared for that country (and/or its allies) to asymmetrically smack your country back.

    I, for one, do not relish being the future victim of terrorism induced by the actions of Israel and/or our govt.

    Why do we support Israel in these misguided misadventures?

    Some food for thought

  27. Allen Thomson (History)

    > However, the facility, as many have noted, seems pretty isolated. Does anyone else have a better grasp on what the health consequences of such an attack would be?

    Though isolated, the Box was some 800 meters from the Euphrates. And fission products include the infamous and highly detectable isotopes Sr90 and Cs137. Bombing a reactor that had been running would have run the risk of transporting those isotopes (and others) into the river and subsequent detection downstream. I have no idea whether the amount of bone and thyroid uptake amongst the populace would have been medically significant, but the anti-Israel propaganda potential would have been immense.

  28. john (History)

    “Can anyone else think of other possible reasons why the Israelis would not go to the international community first? This to me is the most perplexing unanswered question.”

    We don’t need no stinking international community.

    I also remember hearing at the time of this event that it was a dirty-bomb project, so no need for enrichment facilities.

  29. Andy (History)

    Can anyone else think of other possible reasons why the Israelis would not go to the international community first? This to me is the most perplexing unanswered question.

    The answer to this lies in Israeli strategic doctrine which has essentially remained unchanged since the Yom Kippur war. Rather than explain it myself, I’ll quote the Jan. 2006 edition of Jane’s Intelligence Review:

    The mantra of the Israeli Ministry of Defense has, since the Yom Kippur war, been survival through military domination. A core canon of Israel’s security doctrine – that the very viability of the state will not withstand military defeat – is rooted in Tel Aviv’s numerical inferiority and lack of strategic depth, and in the common perception that the state cannot affect the intentions of its neighbours, but can only impact upon their capability to carry out those intentions. This reasoning leaves Israel with no option but to attain peace through military superiority.

    Veteran Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari said: “We have no choice but to be superior to our immediate environment, because if we do not, we will be crushed. They will not wait a day.” This deep-rooted ‘if they could, they would’ reasoning transcends Israeli party lines. Prominent Labor politicians such as Ephraim Sneh may believe in peace with the Arabs, but not in the Arabs’ willingness to make peace of their own volition. Sneh explained to JIR: “This is the assumption that should lead us in everything that we are doing. [Because] in this region, every weapon has to be considered as if it is directed towards Israel.”

    -From Is Nuclear Parity with Iran a Blessing in Disguise for Israel?

    From Israel’s perspective, the failure of the international community to dismantle Iran’s program only justifies their doctrine.

  30. Leonid Petrov (History)

    “Why now?” – To learn the answer – hold your breath. Tomorrow (30th April) the US State Department will issue the list of countries supporting terrorism. North Korea will remain there because of the last-minute Al Kibar scandal…

  31. Hairs (History)

    AP asked: “However, the facility, as many have noted, seems pretty isolated. Does anyone else have a better grasp on what the health consequences of such an attack would be?”

    If the structure was truly a Magnox-type reactor then the best guess of what might have happened if it were bombed during operation would be something between the Windscale fire of 1957 and Chernobyl in 1986. In the case of Windscale the fire was exacerbated – and possibly even caused by – the release of Wigner energy, which builds up in the graphite as a result of neutron induced crystal dislocation. In the case of Chernobyl the fuel was cooled by pressurised water, but as soon as the ZrNi tubes fractured the water very quickly flashed to steam, and the resulting fire was consequntly also mostly graphite burning off.

    Either way both fires led to large, uncontrolled releases of radioactive fission products that, particularly in the case of Chernobyl, were driven high into the atmosphere by the convection caused by the fire. The products then hung around for a long time, and were often deposited thousands of miles from the original source.

    In the case of BOE, if it is a Magnox-clad, graphite reactor then a good sized fire would not only rupture much of the fuel cladding, it would also burn the clad itself. (In the 1970’s the UK tended to use Magnox 80 clad, which was primarily magnesium with about 0.8% aluminium. And if you want to see how well magnesium burns once it is ignited, just look at a flare). Burning the clad would generate very high temperatures in the fuel itself, leading to even more vaporisation, oxidation and dust formation of actinides and other nasty fission products.

    Just imagine the fallout, metaphorical as well as physical, that would have landed on Jerusalem if a fully operational reactor comparatively near Israel’s border had been bombed and burned, and then the wind had changed direction 3 days later and the products had come down with the rain all over Israel.

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