This week promises to be an important one for the Obama administration as it seeks to improve relations with Damacus. The State Department has scheduled a meeting with Syria's ambassador for Thursday, February 26. Yet, while the press latched on to a United Nations atomic inspectors' report last week on Iran's nuclear program, the agency's update on Syria was barely a footnote. That's unfortunate because the three-page document issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency, despite its mind-numbingly, pretzelian diplo-speak, could complicate the Obama administration's long-term goals.
The Vienna-based IAEA report not only criticizes Syria — yet again — for failing to cooperate fully with the agency's investigation, it also implicitly challenges Syria's official explanation about what was going on at the site near Dair Alzour which Israel bombed in late 2007.
In September, 2007 Israeli warplanes obliterated what Israel later claimed was a North-Korean-supported nuclear reactor known as Al-Kibar. After being shown Israeli evidence, Washington officials charged that the facility was a reactor which, when completed, could have made fuel for nuclear bombs. Outraged, Syria claimed that the site was a conventional military installation that had nothing to do with nuclear weapons or atomic energy. It also let the atomic inspection agency visit the site and take samples there. When the IAEA reported last year it had found traces of uranium at the site, Syria claimed they had probably come from the shells of the Israeli-dropped bombs, as uranium is sometimes used in bombs to destroy hardened targets.
But in its report last week, the IAEA concluded there was a "low probability" that the uranium traces had come from Israeli bombs. The chemical composition of the tiny particles found at the site, the agency wrote, were "all inconsistent with what would be expected from the use of uranium based munitions." In addition, not only had more uranium particles been found, the IAEA reported, the tiny specks were "of a type not included in Syria's declared inventory of nuclear material." In other words, the uranium was not likely to have come from the research reactor that Syria told the IAEA was part and parcel of its peaceful nuclear energy program. In fact, U.N. officials told Greg Webb, of Global Security Newswire, among others, the particles found at the destroyed site contained graphite. This appears to strengthen Israeli and American claims that Al-Kabir was a nearly complete reactor — designed with North Korean help — to produce plutonium for weapons. North Korea's reactor at Yongbyon, is fueled by natural uranium and moderated with graphite.
"What this means," said Jacqueline Shire, a nuclear expert with the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, a private nuclear monitoring group, "is that the IAEA is discrediting Syria's official explanation. It's saying that the presence of uranium particles is not explained by Syria's claim."
The agency also complains in its report that Syria still has not provided "additional information and supporting documentation about the past use and nature of the building at the Dair Alzour site," and information about its "procurement activities." The report also noted that Syria was still denying its inspectors access to a water plant and other sites that must be surveyed "for the Agency to complete its assessment."
In an interview, a Syrian official said that while Damascus had invited the IAEA to take samples at the site and had answered many questions about the nature of the facility and its activities, Syria had to be cautious about IAEA demands for greater access and information because Israel and other states were now trying to use the agency to "gather more information about Syrian military installations and operations." "We're technically still at war with Israel. So we're not going to play this game. But we have cooperated in the past," he said, "and we're now considering all our options."
The nuclear "flapette" comes at a particularly delicate time. A United Nations tribunal on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri — which many Lebanese have blamed on Syria — starts March 1st. And the Obama administration must also decide when to send an ambassador to the embassy in Damascus, who was withdrawn in 2005 in the wake of that assassination. In an interview late last week with the Guardian, a British newspaper, Syrian President Bashar Assad said he hoped that relations between the two states would improve and called upon Washington to send its ambassador back soon.
Team Obama has recently made diplomatic gestures aimed at easing sanctions that were imposed by the Bush administration to punish Damascus for allowing foreign fighters to cross into Iraq and for its support of Hamas, Hezbollah, and other designated terrorist groups. Specifically, the administration recently agreed to provide spare parts for two Syrian-owned Boeing 747 aircraft that had been out of service for years — on safety ground — an Obama spokesman was quick to explain. But last week, the Treasury Department permitted some $500,000 to be transferred to a Syrian charity, another exception to the sanctions regime. Imad Mustapha, Syria's ambassador to the U.S., said both moves were aimed at easing America's economic embargo on his country.
American congressional delegations have also been visiting Damascus after a long diplomatic drought. Last Wednesday, Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), delivered a fairly tough message when he met with President Assad, saying that relations could only improve if Syria changed its ways. But Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after his meeting last Saturday that there were possibilities for "real cooperation" between the two nations, calling his discussion with Syria's young leader, "long," "candid," and "open."
David Schenker, a former Pentagon official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he did not think that Syria's nuclear stone-walling would stop Obama's planned diplomatic thaw. "While the IAEA report doesn't make it any easier," he said, "the administration can always argue that its outreach is aimed at helping resolve obstacles like this."