Israel did succeed in destroying a Syrian clandestine nuclear reactor designed for military purposes last year. Long the subject of claim and denial, the independent “think tank” the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has accepted the veracity of US documents released earlier this year. They show that the bombed building had been designed to produce plutonium, and was too small for generating electricity commercially.
The IISS is notoriously slow to accept claims by any side in the political and propaganda battles until it has examined the “proofs” and verified them. Hence the significance of its endorsement of Israeli and US claims, published in its June briefing. The US documents catalogue an attempted escalation in nuclear firepower, with the most dangerous weapon known to man being sought by a country which is diplomatically isolated and close to the volatile faultline between Israel and Palestine.
Satellite pictures and Israeli intelligence photographs show a bombed building near the Syrian town of al-Kibar housed a small reactor under construction since 2001. Cooling was provided by a pipeline to the river Euphrates nearby, obviating the need for a cooling tower, visible from the air. The facility was housed in a canyon, with earthen walls to conceal it The lack of observable physical protection measures, anti-aircraft installations, etc underlines the Syrian desire to keep the facility hidden. There were no power lines, turbines, switching equipment or other evidence of electricity production for peaceful means. After the bombing, the Syrians dynamited the remains of the building, and put up an unrelated structure on the site. When the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors finally got access to al-Kibar in May 2008, their findings were inconclusive.
For weapons use, plutonium must be separated from other fission by-products. No evidence was uncovered of a dedicated reprocessing facility to accomplish this, so the immediate threat of a Syrian nuclear bomb was remote. The IISS dismisses CIA director Michael Hayden’s claim that Syria’s reactor could produce up to two bombs a year. Such “appears to be an exaggeration” according to the IISS, but was enough “for one implosion type weapon”.
The facility was completed in August 2007, and Israel destroyed it on September 7, before it could be loaded with fuel. The Americans, noting the similarity between the Syrian reactor and the Yongbyon installation in North Korea, and other links between the two countries, believe there was collusion between the two. The IISS remains to be fully convinced.
This conditional confirmation of the Israeli-US position vis-à-vis Syria comes at a time when Israel is believed to be considering a similar strike against Iran. Israel’s deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz warned in June that Israel would have no choice but to attack Iran. Hawks in the Israeli establishment could see a “window of opportunity” ahead of the US presidential election in November, or during the inter regnum, after which, they fear, a successful Obama might engage with Iran and Syria, and “close the window”. Meanwhile the G5+1 (Permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany) have tried to persuade Iran to accept incentives to halt uranium enrichment.