BICOM Analysis: Syrian WMD ambitions and regional diplomacy

Executive Summary

In recent days, two revelations have served to return Syria to the centre of attention in the Middle East. The first was the closed hearing of the US House Intelligence Committee. At this hearing evidence was presented regarding the nature of the facility in eastern Syria destroyed by Israeli aircraft on 6 September 2007. The evidence presented, according to a summary released after the hearing, indicated that the facility was a plutonium processing plant, which formed part of a Syrian clandestine nuclear program. The evidence presented also supported suspicions that the plant had been constructed with the involvement of North Korea.[i] The second revelation concerned the issue of a possible peace process between Syria and Israel. Israel may well have intended the sudden announcement of negotiations as a ‘face-saving’ gesture to the Syrians – underlining Israel’s lack of aggressive intentions toward Damascus. Syria undoubtedly would like to lever negotiations with Israel as a way to rebuild its connection to the US. It is unlikely, however, that the latest announcement presages the imminent commencement of a meaningful negotiating process between Israel and Syria. 


In recent days, two revelations have served to return Syria to the centre of attention in the Middle East. The first was the closed hearing of the US House Intelligence Committee, at which evidence was presented regarding the facility in eastern Syria destroyed by Israeli aircraft in September 2007. According to a summary released after the hearing, the evidence indicated that the facility was a plutonium processing plant, which formed part of a clandestine Syrian nuclear program. The evidence presented also supported suspicions that the plant had been constructed with the involvement of North Korea.[ii] The second revelation concerned the issue of a possible peace process between Syria and Israel. A report in the Damascus newspaper al-Watan related that on Tuesday 22 April 2008, Israel had conveyed a message to Damascus via Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, in which the government of Israel confirmed its willingness to cede the entire Golan Heights in return for a peace agreement with Syria.[iii] This article will examine both these revelations in detail, consider possible links between them, and conclude by looking at the implications of the latest revelations for regional diplomacy.

Evidence of nuclear activity?

The evidence presented at the Congressional hearing included detailed photographic images suggesting a number of close similarities between the Syrian al-Kibar facility, and the North Korean Yonbyon nuclear reactor. One picture taken at al-Kibar showed the rods used to control the heat in a nuclear reactor. Observers suggested that the rods showed a virtually identical configuration and number of holes for the fuel rods between the al-Kibar facility and Yonbyon.[iv] Congressmen were also shown a photograph of the manager of the Yonbyon plant together with the director of Syria’s nuclear energy agency. The picture appeared to have been taken in Syria. It was noted that the al-Kibar facility was ‘not configured to produce electricity’, and was unsuitable for research purposes. The report also noted that the US possesses information ‘spanning more than a decade’ of nuclear cooperation between Syria and North Korea, and concludes that in the view of the US, the facility at al-Kibar destroyed by Israel on 6 September 2007, was a ‘gas-cooled, graphite moderated nuclear reactor.'[v]

Intelligence officials, briefing reporters after the hearing, accepted that they possessed no evidence suggesting that Syria had constructed a facility for converting the fuel that would be produced at the reactor into weapons-grade plutonium. At the same time, the officials confirmed that they could think of no other explanation for the existence of the reactor. The clandestine nature of the facility clearly placed Syria in violation of its commitments according to the Non-proliferation treaty (NPT), of which Damascus has been a signatory since 1969. Syria has long denied possessing any nuclear facilities, including of a civilian nature.

Syrian officials, for their part, dismissed the veracity of the evidence presented at the Congressional hearing. Syria’s Ambassador to the US, Imad Moustapha, claimed that the building Israel bombed in September 2007 was an empty military facility. The ambassador also said that the photos shown may not even have been taken in Syria.[vi] Such claims may appear shrill. A new report, however, by the Institute for Science and International Security, the civilian research agency which produced the first civilian satellite imagery of the al-Kibar site after the Israeli raid, raises a series of legitimate questions regarding the latest US revelations. The ISIS report notes the absence of evidence indicating the development of a weaponisation program, and the absence of any evidence showing how the Syrians would have obtained the uranium necessary for fuelling the facility.[vii] Such questions are surely pertinent, although they do not detract from the clear illegality of the Syrian activity already uncovered. And it is hard to explain the clandestine nature of the Syrian program, since the Syrians could have pursued a civil nuclear capability through open channels, in line with their NPT commitments, had they chosen to do so.

Syria announces Israeli commitment

In the midst of the growing controversy over the evidence of a Syrian nuclear program, came the sudden announcement of a secret channel of communication between Israel and Syria, via the Turkish government. Al Watan reported that Israel had communicated to Syria via this channel that it was willing to cede the entire Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria. Syrian Expatriate Affairs Minister Buthaina Shaaban told al-Jazeera the following day that the Israeli message had expressed a willingness to withdraw from the entirety of the Golan. Such a concession would represent the full realization of Syria’s demands. Israel neither confirmed nor denied the report, but both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PM’s Spokesman Mark Regev subsequently spoke of Israel’s interest in a negotiated peace with Syria, and of the two sides’ mutual awareness of what the other would expect in order to successfully conclude such a process.[viii]

Analysts immediately sought to explain the coincidence of the sudden awakening of a possible negotiating process between Syria and Israel, at the moment of the revelation regarding Syria’s nuclear efforts. From Israel’s point of view, it was known that the Israeli defence establishment was uncomfortable with the US decision to make public the evidence regarding Syria’s nuclear efforts. Israel is understood to have no desire to place Syria in a humiliating public position as it may make Syrian retaliation for the September raid more likely.[ix] From the Israeli point of view, the raid itself was sufficient to transfer the desired message to the Syrians regarding the true balance of power between Jerusalem and Damascus. It is therefore possible that Israel wished to remind Syria of its readiness for a negotiated peace, involving concessions, as a means to reassure Damascus that Israel has no aggressive intentions toward Syria, and to allow Assad’s regime to ‘save face.’

From the Syrian point of view, Damascus has long sought to lever the negotiating process with Israel in order to re-establish communication with the US. At this moment of tension between Washington and Damascus, the sudden Syrian announcement of a revived negotiating process may well have been intended to play such a role. Undoubtedly, a serious negotiating process between the sides could only be mediated by Washington.

Such a process would not of course be a simple exchange of the Golan Heights for a peace treaty. Rather, the central aspects of the negotiation would be the Golan, and Syria’s network of regional alliances. Israel’s expectation (and that of the US, in any conceivable scenario of US mediation) would be that in return for gaining the Golan, Syria would: end support for Palestinian rejectionist and terror groups, end support for Hezbollah, terminate its strategic relationship with Iran, and end all support for the Iraq insurgency. The intention would be that Israeli territorial concessions would be instrumental in bringing Syria over from the Iran-led regional axis, back into the mainstream Arab fold. Such an outcome would be of major strategic importance.[x]

How realistic is the prospect of fruitful negotiations?

However, how likely is it that Syria would be tempted by such a deal? Syria, as Middle East expert Fouad Ajami has noted, is a naturally weak country which has punched above its weight in the region because of its ‘capacity for mischief.'[xi] It has been Syria’s willingness to act as a disruptive force which has forced both other Arab nations and the international community to take its wishes into account. Syria’s defiant stance has also formed the basis for the regime’s internal legitimacy. Syria is ruled by a regime based upon a minority community of doubtful Muslim affiliation (the Alawis). But the Arab nationalist rhetoric employed by the regime and its defiance of the US and Israel buy it a considerable measure of legitimacy and popularity among the majority Sunni Syrian population. The implication of the price currently being discussed for the return of the Golan Heights would be that Syria would be required to entirely cede its ‘capacity for mischief,’ abandon its desire to return to dominate Lebanon, end its 25 year alliance with Iran, and cease support for radical Palestinians. In return, Syria would gain the Golan Heights, and – following a honeymoon ‘prodigal son’ period in which it would be feted and in which information it could provide would be of value – it would  become a small, not very important member of the pro-western alliance in the region.

Many Israeli analysts and policymakers are skeptical as to whether at the present juncture; Bashar Assad will be willing to pay the price for such an agreement. As President Shimon Peres put it over the weekend, “We would not turn the Golan heights to the Iranians.”

Peres added that “Assad prefers Lebanon and the relation with Hezbollah to the Golan Heights. If they do not break their relations with Hezbollah and the Iranians, they can’t have the Golan… Assad is worried that he might lose his rule of Syria if he agreed on peace with Israel.”[xii]

Given this, it is not yet clear whether the channels of communication between Israel and Syria will result in the opening of a meaningful negotiating process. Israeli officials, nevertheless, are keen to stress Israel’s openness to such a process – making clear that the ‘ball is now in the Syrians’ court. The latest revelations regarding the raid of September 2007, meanwhile, appear to show the extent to which the Bashar Assad regime is prepared to go in pursuing its long term goal of developing a credible military threat to Israel – but also the distance between this goal and current reality.



[i] David E. Sanger, “Government Releases Images of Syrian Reactor,” New York Times, 25 April 2008. http://www.nytimes.com  See also Robin Wright, “N. Koreans taped at Syrian Reactor,” Washington Post, 24 April 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Isabel Kershner, “Israel and Syria hint at progress on Golan Heights deal,” New York Times, 24 April 2008. http://www.nytimes.com

[iv] Sanger.

[v] From the White House presentation on Syrian/North Korean ties, http://www.nytimes.com

[vi] “Ambassador: claims about Syria are ‘Iraq déjà vu,” CNN, 25 April 2008. http://edition.cnn.com

[vii] David Albright and Paul Brannan, “Syria Update III: New information about al-Kibar reactor site,” ISIS Report, 24 April 2008. http://www.isis-online.org

[viii] Kershner.

[ix] Amos Harel, Barak Ravid and Shmuel Rosner, “Israel: Syria may rethink retaliation in light of nuclear revelations,” Haaretz, 25 April 2008. http://www.haaretz.com

[x] See Testimony of Peter W. Rodman, Senior Fellow, Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, 24 April 2008. http://www.brookings.edu

[xi] Fouad Ajami, “Arab Road,” Foreign Policy, No. 47, Summer 1982, p. 16.

[xii] “Peres: Assad wants Lebanon – not Golan,” Naharnet, 25 April 2008. http://www.naharnet.com

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