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Syria's Secret Nuclear Program and Long Term Threat

Washington -- On May 5, 2004 RPS reported that there is growing concern in the Bush administration that Syria has been pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons development program, and may already have centrifuges that can purify uranium for use in bombs. Centrifuges are a vital component in any nuclear weapons development program, as they can be used to purify uranium for use as nuclear fuel or in weapons. Experts say getting weapons-grade material is the biggest hurdle for any country that desires the bomb.

On Septmeber 16, 2005, John Bolton, then Undersecretary for Arms Control & International Security - U.S. Department of State, testified before the Middle East and Central Asia Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee on Syria's bio/chem and atomic programs. In his testimony, Mr. Bolton said: "..on the nuclear side we are concerned about Syria's nuclear R&D program and continue to watch for any sign of nuclear weapons activity or foreign assistance that could facilitate a Syrian nuclear weapons capability. We are aware of Syrian efforts to acquire dual-use technologies that could be applied to a nuclear weapons program."

Since Washington began its post-September 11 policy of aggressively pursuing countries it believed had weapons of mass destruction that could be used against the United States and its allies, it has repeatedly issued warnings about Syria. Recent reports issued by the CIA have highlighted growing concern over Syria.

As an important player in the U.N. Oil for Food program, Syria also diverted important resources to its nuclear program by purchasing equipment, expertise, and delivery systems from other rogue nations or individuals.

Early on, various countries such as Belgium, China, Germany, and the former Soviet Union assisted Syria in their nuclear research. Additionally, over the years, Syria has solicited proposals from other countries including Argentina, India, and Italy. Further, the IAEA helped Syria on numerous projects including uranium exploration, uranium extraction from phosphoric acid, isotope production, construction of a cyclotron facility, development of nuclear research laboratories, and preparation for a nuclear power program.

A report by Middle East Newsline (MENL) in July of 2004 disclosed that the Bush administration has expressed concern that Syria might exploit dual-use components and technology approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency for a nuclear weapons program.

MENL further went on to say that officials said the United States has been tracking Syrian orders for dual-use components and technologies for its civilian nuclear research program. They said Russia has also been offering Damascus expertise and cooperation in the development of a Syrian nuclear reactor.

Nuclear Site

Sources close to RPS have disclosed that Syria is involved in military nuclear research not too far from Deir el-Hajjar, a tourist area in Syria. Deir el-Hajjar is also known for agricultural research, which is intended to hide the real purpose of nuclear research. Experts believe that some of the satellite early detection technology will be dismissed because of the agricultural component of the location.

"The CIA is aware of the site and is monitoring the situation closely" Sources told RPS. The site is built underground and has two facilities: civil and military. The civil facility is a cover for the military one, the real purpose of the site.

Furthermore, the Central Intelligence Agency has unclassified recently a report that was sent to Congress on the "Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions". In it, the CIA accuses Syria of promoting a nuclear, chemical and biological programs.

The report states: "Syria...has a nuclear research center at Dayr Al Hajar. Russia and Syria have continued their long-standing agreements on cooperation regarding nuclear energy, although specific assistance has not yet materialized. Broader access to foreign expertise provides opportunities to expand its indigenous capabilities, and we are monitoring Syrian nuclear intentions with concern.

Nuclear Scientists

RPS is aware of three Syrian nuclear scientists who work closely with the regime of Assad. The most prominent is Dr. Ibrahim Othman who heads the Atomic Energy Commission (AECS), an organization established in 1979 by Hafez al-Assad for, in disclosures to the IAEA, peaceful use of nuclear technology for power plants. Dr. Othman is a habitual visitor to all IAEA annual meetings in Vienna. It is believed that he was the contact man with the Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan known to have delivered important secrets to rogue nations.

The other two scientists are Dr. Mustapha Hamolella, a Kurdish nuclear physicist and Dr. Faris Al-Asfari. Both work closely on the Syrian nuclear program and are closely associated with the regime.

It is also believed that Iraqi nuclear scientists may have escaped to Syria and are working closely with the Syrian regime to build a nuclear bomb. A group of about 12 middle-ranking Iraqi nuclear technicians and their families were transported to Syria before the collapse of Saddam's regime. The transfer was arranged under a combined operation by Saddam's now defunct Special Security Organization and Syrian Military Security, which was headed until recently by Assef Shawqat, Assad's brother-in-law.

The Iraqis, who brought with them CDs crammed with research data on Saddam's nuclear program, were given new identities, including Syrian citizenship papers and falsified birth, education, and health certificates. Since then they have been hidden away at a secret Syrian military installation where they have been conducting research on behalf of their hosts.

Expertise and Equipment

According to an IAEA official, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who has sold nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea, is also behind the proliferation of sensitive nuclear technologies to Syria.

"The leadership of Pakistan was well aware of the export of Pakistani nuclear technologies," the unnamed source in the International Atomic Energy Agency was quoted as saying by a Russian news agency, RIA Novosti.

"It is not ruled out that besides Iran, Libya and North Korea, such supplies could have been made to Syria" the official said.

Several Western diplomats who follow the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), have been saying for months that Syria was a customer of Khan's.

"Syria certainly had contact with Khan," said a non-U.S. Western diplomat, adding that suspicions of Syrian research in atomic weapons have existed for decades.

MENL reported on August 25, 2004 that the U.S. intelligence community obtained evidence that the Khan network sold and delivered components for an unspecified number of Pakistani-designed P1 centrifuges to Syria.

On April 29, 2004 then U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton said that Adbul Qadeer Khan had "several other" customers who may want the bomb. Western diplomats in Vienna said Bolton was clearly referring to Syria.

And on June 9, 2004, a North Korean expert disclosed to Future Korea that Syrians visited North Korea to acquire equipment. He said that:

  • Syria ordered a large number of Scud missiles tipped with bio/chem warheads.
  • Syria ordered Rocket engines that were made at "January 8th Factory" in Kaechon.
  • Syria ordered Missile bodies that were made at "No. 26 Factory" in Namchon-dong, Kanggye City.
  • The missiles were assembled at "Shin-eum-ri Factory" in Pyongyang City.
  • And Bio/chemical warheads, the most sensitive parts, were finished at "Namheung Chemical Factory" and transported via train.

Enriched Uranium

RPS reported on March 5, 2004 that large amounts of uranium have gone missing from a nuclear technology company in Sweden. The CIA fears a worst-case scenario where the material has already fallen into terrorist hands, newspaper Expressen reports.

"The company (Ranstad Mineral) is a security risk and we have taken the matter to top level to get the Swedes to stop them," a CIA spokesman told the Swedish newspaper.

The CIA operative claims to know that the little Swedish company has educated Syrian nuclear physicists in the treatment of uranium. The Syrian scientists left the company right after the disappearance of the uranium. He also has information that a Swedish consultancy has sold nuclear equipment to Syria that can be used in the treatment of radioactive material.

"If it transpires that radioactive or nuclear material has been sent on from Sweden to Syria then this is a very serious matter for Sweden," the CIA source said.

After a meeting with the CIA operative Swedish authorities raided Ranstad Mineral several times and shut the company down on the grounds of deficient security.

"It was one of the worst things I have seen. The company has extremely serious deficiencies in its registration system," said Carl Magnus Larsson, divisional leader of the Swedish Radiation Protection Authority after their inspection.

Chemical Testing

According to well informed sources inside Syria, the Syrian Air Force base in Homs has tested chemical weapons aerial delivery on July 11, 2006 just one day prior to the attacks carried out by Hezbollah inside Israel. Unit 416 and Unit 417 in the Air Force were responsible to carry out the tests.

The tests involved the delivery of Sarin and VX through Syria's Scud missile arsenal (Scud-B and Scud-C) produced in Syria with the help of North Korea. A civilian research center located near Damascus, the Syrian Center for Scientific Studies and Research (Centre d' Etudes et de Recherche Scientifique--CERS) was also involved in the procurement of dual-use technologies that went into the development of the chemical stockpiles in Syria.

Delivery Systems

Syria was the conduit for the purchase of SAM engines for the Iraqi government from Belarus that would have enabled Iraq to use them to deliver any weapon up to 180km in radius. These same engines can be mounted two-to-a-rocket, which would have enabled Iraq to deliver any missile up to 600Km in clear violation of the UN sanctions. Of the 352 engines that were purchased by Syria from Belarus, only a handful have been delivered to Iraq and accounted for, the rest are in Syria's possession.

On May 14, 2004 RPS reported that western diplomatic sources said Beijing has sent several delegations and technicians to accelerate Syria's program for extended-range Scud missiles. The sources said the increased aid was first detected in late 2003 in what they termed a major development.

"The Chinese effort is meant to provide Syria with technical assistance that it has not been able to receive from other countries," a diplomatic source said. "The focus is to extend the Scud from short-range to medium- and even intermediate-range."

The sources said the Chinese assistance appears to be replacing that of North Korea, which was the prime supplier to and developer of Syria's missile programs. Pyongyang supplied and helped develop the Scud C and Scud D programs.

Russia, at one point, planned to sell the Iskander-E missile technology to Syria but backed down after the US lodged its objection to the sale. However, Belarus will be getting these highly accurate missiles and there is no reason, given the level of cooperation between the Belarusian government and the Assad regime that Belarus may not transfer that technology to Syria.

The Russian Role

Russia's arms business has found in Syria (and Iran) willing buyers. Russia has supplied Syria with SA-18 surface-to-air missiles, which according to arms specialists could be easily dismantled and handed over to terrorists. It has been a mystery of how Hezbollah been able to down Israeli helicopters in Lebanon.

According to MissileThreats.com, in June of 2006, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported Moscow's decision to establish naval bases in the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia. As part of the plan, the port of Tartus would be transformed into a naval base for Russia's Black Sea Fleet when it is away from the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol. The Russian plan involves the installation of an air defense system with S-300PMU-2 Favorit ballistic missiles. The missiles have a range of 200 kilometers (124 miles), allow a larger warhead and are equipped with a better guidance system than the previous version. The air defense system would be operated by Russia for the defense of the Tartus base and would provide potential protection for a large part of Syria. Through these initiatives, it is clear that Russia wants to strengthen its position in the Middle East.

Russia is searching for a new role in the diplomatic balance in the Middle East and a decision to move into Syria is a step on the path toward increasing its influence in the region. Syria seems to be the best target for this approach because of Damascus' heightened weakness as a result of its international isolation that was reinforced after the U.S. intervention in Iraq and Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is searching for allies to move the country out of isolation. This increases its incentive to turn to Moscow, even if this relationship will not be as strong as it was during the Cold War era. For Russia, its increasing ties with Syria provide Moscow with added leverage in the region.

During the first five years of Putin's presidency, Moscow and Damascus did not share close relations; since the beginning of 2005, however, that situation changed. In the last two years, Russia has built a closer relationship with Syria. The country is an important cash-buyer of Russian arms and an interesting partner for Russia's energy industries. Moreover, Putin is searching for a stronger role in the Israeli-Arab peace process; Russia's February 2006 meeting with Hamas is a clear example of this policy. Through that meeting, Russia tried to seize the initiative from the United States and the European Union, with the latter two's decision-making about the future of the peace process paralyzed by Hamas' election victory.

Furthermore, the London based "al-Awsat" reported on August 11, 2005 that Iran and a number of Gulf States have worked out a way to handle Syria's $12 billion arms debt to Russia so that Syria can now sign a new major arms deal with Russia which will include: 48 MIG-29's; 14-24 Sukhoi-27 [which is claimed to be a better performer than the Israeli F-15's]; SAM-11 ground to air missiles to replace the SAM-6's; SAM-12's for defense against missiles and jets to replace the SAM-5's, M300BMU - a development of the SAM-10 which is claimed to be superior to the American Patriot, able to strike jets 100 kilometers away and missiles 40 kilometers away; as well as 300 T-80 tanks.

The Iranian Role

On February 29, 2005, during a press conference in Beirut - Lebanon, Iranian defense Minister Shamkhani said that his country has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Syria and another with Lebanon to bolster the military apparatuses of both countries. The Syrian MOU in fact was intended to send a clear signal that cooperation between Iran and Syria are an integral part of their foreign policy, which lead many to believe that Iran may be working closely with Syria on a parallel nuclear program.

Moreover, Iran came quickly to the defense of Syria two weeks ago and threatened Israel with retaliation if Syria is attacked. This shows that the NATO-like MOU signed between Iran and Syria will make it very hard to peel Syria off by offering it any incentives.

Iran is calculating that Syria's involvement may distract attention away from its own nuclear program (Which did not happen) but also the intended purpose is to present the US with another challenge that Iran knows well the US will be unable to face simultaneously and because of a multiple fronts opened to confront terrorism.

Conclusion

All indications are that Syria is building a potent nuclear program with Iran's assistance and help. The United States government has never disclosed publicly the information but some believe that the CIA is fully aware of the damage that Khan has done and that Syria's nuclear program is more advanced than previously stated.

Syria has a potent chemical arms arsenal with a delivery system that can reach 700km that Assad is willing to use as has been proven through his direct Syrian-made missiles to Hezbollah.

Reform Part of Syria


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