Syria Continues to Stonewall the IAEA

Israel attacked Syria's nuclear facility without going through the "proper channels" of the U.N. atomic energy agency...for good reason. The IAEA continues to be ineffective. Over three years after the bombing of a suspected nuclear facility at Al Kibar by the IAF, the rogue state continues to derail a full investigation by IAEA, the U.N. atomic energy agency.

On 6 September 2007, a previously undisclosed facility in Al Kibar, Syria, was destroyed by aerial firepower. The target, located roughly eighty miles from the Iraqi border, was widely rumored to have hosted a nuclear reactor that the Syrian government was clandestinely constructing with assistance from North Korea in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Press reports suggest that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) was behind the attack; however, neither the United States nor Israel has confirmed or denied exactly what occurred. 

Photos revealing various stages of the facility's development were reportedly obtained by the Mossad sometime in 2006. One of the photos was of particular interest, as it revealed Chon Chibu (a member of North Korea's nuclear program) and Ibrahim Othman (director of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission) standing together at the site.  

Press reports have also suggested that the Mossad was gathering intelligence from a human source planted inside the facility during the summer of 2007. The source is claimed to have provided Israel with visual evidence, including video footage, of the suspected nuclear site. The footage obtained revealed a reactor strikingly similar to the one in Yongbyon, as well as several North Koreans working at the location. 

North Korea has long assisted Syria with their ballistic missile program, but the complex at Al Kibar was the first indication of cooperation between the two nations on a nuclear program.

It is suspected that sometime after midnight on 6 September 2007, seven F-15s from the 69th Squadron of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) bombed the suspicious Al Kibar facility. The planes were able to penetrate the site's Russian-built Tor-M1 air defense system after taking off from Ramat David air base in Haifa. The attack has since become known as "Operation Orchard."   

Following the attack, Syria issued a statement acknowledging that the IAF had indeed crossed the border; however, the report claimed, after the Israeli planes made an unsuccessful attack on an unpopulated area, the nation's air defenses "forced them to flee." Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem reiterated this story four days later, proclaiming that live ammunition had been used by the IAF, but nothing had been damaged, and no one had been injured. It took almost a month before Syrian president Bashar al-Assad revealed to the public that the Israelis had in fact hit a facility, but he referred to it as an "unused military building." To this day, Syria has refused to acknowledge the site as a nuclear facility, referring to the allegations as "ridiculous." 

Following the event, Israel immediately instituted a news blackout throughout the country, forbidding newspapers to write anything about the attack. When confronted about the raid, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert simply stated that members of the IDF were "demonstrating unusual courage" and that Israel "cannot always show the public our cards." The nation remained silent about the matter until early October 2007, when Israeli Army Radio revealed that the IAF had hit a military installation "deep inside Syria." Details of the attack were omitted from the report.

The United States government initially refused to comment on the situation; however, intelligence issued a handout video to the media in early 2008 identifying the nuclear facility and the reactor suspected to be inside. The video revealed photos of the reactor's construction, the location of the site, and how the facility was operating. Satellite images of the site were also released by DigitalGlobe and SPOT Image Corporation. Although the U.S. has been forthcoming in their knowledge of the construction and capabilities of Al Kibar, they have still not officially recognized Israel's involvement in the attack. To this day, the United States has not admitted to playing a role in the destruction of the suspected nuclear site.

The nations involved were so uncharacteristically quiet in the immediate aftermath of the event that the IAEA's director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, first became aware of the bombing through press reports. After hearing the news, ElBaradei chastised both the U.S. and Israel, claiming that the two nations "shoot first and ask questions later." However, an investigation was authorized by the IAEA, which began to probe Syria, requesting access to the supposed military installation hit at Al Kibar. 

If the site was in fact home to a nuclear reactor, Syria would be in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which they signed in 1968. Countries who have signed the treaty are authorized to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful means but are restricted from developing nuclear weapons. Virtually every U.N. member state has signed the treaty, and 151 of the 192 member states are members of the IAEA. Syria signed an agreement with the IAEA in 1992 obligating the nation to report its nuclear activity and plans to the agency, which is supposed to monitor their compliance with the NPT. If enough evidence is produced to find a signatory nation in violation of the treaty, the agency reports its findings to the U.N. Security Council. Syria has registered one nuclear reactor for research purposes; however, the nation has reportedly made several unsuccessful attempts over the last decade to purchase greater capabilities from Argentina and Russia.

Syria initially blocked the IAEA from inspecting the site of the bombing, claiming that the building was a military installation and that a visit from the agency would be unnecessary. Many outlets began to further question the credibility of Syria's claims following their hesitation to let inspectors into the country. If Syria had nothing to hide, why not invite the IAEA in to prove their innocence? Syria's obstruction, coupled with conflicting statements by various diplomats and government officials, led many to believe Israel was correct in its assessment and that Syria had in fact been constructing an illegal reactor.

To further dampen the hopes of an adequate investigation, satellite imagery began to reveal Syrian officials clearing the site of the suspected facility. On 10 October 2007, Syria conducted a controlled demolition of the remaining materials at the site. Several people were witnessed clearing the site and paving over it with concrete. The photos also reveal the removal of several large containers from the site and the erection of a new building over the location of the previous facility. Several press outlets have interpreted the mass alteration of the site immediately following the attack as a "tacit admission of guilt."

Roughly eight months after the attack, Syrian officials began to indicate a willingness to have the site inspected. They solidified this position in a 31 May 2008 letter that agreed to have IAEA inspectors visit Al Kibar to take environmental samples. The IAEA visited Syrian authorities in Damascus on 22 June, investigated the site on 23 June, and returned to Damascus for further discussion on 24 June. The IAEA reported that they had "unrestricted access" to all of the buildings on the site; however, Damascus would not grant the inspectors "any documentation relevant to the destroyed building, or any of the other buildings, to support its statements." During the 24 June meeting, the IAEA was repeatedly met with resistance over its requests for further documentation relating to the site. When Syria refused to provide records to the agency, the IAEA wrote a follow-up letter on 3 July reiterating their request for greater information and another visit. When Syria refused, another letter was sent on 15 August. Syria again denied the request, leaving the IAEA to conduct their investigation using only the samples they had acquired from the site on 23 June.

Following the IAEA's limited examination, the agency released a  report on 19 November 2008. The report revealed that construction of the Al Kibar facility began sometime between 26 April 2001 and 4 August 2001 and continued until August 2007. The agency stated that the facility's "containment structure appear[ed] to have been similar in dimension and layout to that required for a biological shield for nuclear reactors, and the overall size of the building was sufficient to house the equipment needed for a nuclear reactor of the type alleged." 

Based on information gathered during the 23 June visit, the IAEA was able to confirm that the water-pumping infrastructure located at the site had a capacity adequate for the size of the alleged reactor and that there was "sufficient electrical capacity to operate the pumping system." The environmental samples taken from the site were analyzed by the IAEA's Network of Analytical Laboratories, which concluded that "a significant number of natural uranium particles" were present and that the analysis of the particles indicated "that the uranium [was] anthropogenic, i.e. that the material was produced as a result of chemical processing." Syria proclaims that these traces were the result of the bombs dropped by Israel; however, the IAEA has dismissed this possibility as "highly unlikely." 

To date, the Syrian government has refused to further cooperate with the agency, a refusal which has largely gone overlooked due to the international focus on Iran's nuclear program. Following requests from the United States and the European Union last month to comply with IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, Damascus defied both parties once again. The United States has suggested that the IAEA request a "special inspection" during next month's Board of Governors meeting, which would grant the agency authority to inspect Syria with little notice. Amano is reportedly unwilling to request a special inspection -- a tactic not used since 1993 in North Korea -- out of fear of further confrontation with the rogue state.  However, even if a special inspection request was extended to Damascus, they could always reject it. The consequence of such action would result in a vote from the agency's board to refer the dilemma to the U.N. Security Council. The prolonged case, which isn't expected to be resolved any time in the near future, has embarrassed the IAEA and frustrated several Western states.

The Al Kibar dilemma highlights the problematic nature of working with international bureaucracies such as the IAEA in a multilateral, as opposed to unilateral, approach. The IAEA is responsible for maintaining the compliance of signatory nations to the NPT. However, the agency failed to detect Al Kibar or exercise any degree of authority throughout their investigation. Syria refused to grant the IAEA access to the suspected site until several months after the bombing. They also denied the agency any requested documentation or follow-up visits, thus prolonging the investigation and obstructing the gathering of evidence. 

Given that Syria was extremely reluctant to grant the IAEA access to the facility after the attack, Israel was correct in not contacting the agency prior to acting, considering the enormous time lapse that would have occurred. The case of Al Kibar demonstrates the lack of authority that agencies such as the IAEA have over nations disinclined to cooperate with investigations. Israel concluded that it was in their national security interest to act first and answer questions later due to the direct threat posed to them by Syria's suspected nuclear facility in Al Kibar. Had Israel waded through the requested international processes, there is a good possibility that Syria would have proceeded with their reactor while denying the IAEA access to the site.