Ana Maria Luca

The Syrian nuclear file

The assassination of five nuclear scientists in Damascus raises questions over Syria’s facilities

A map of the alleged nuclear locations identified by the UN nuclear watchdog and the Institute for Science and International Security.

Five nuclear engineers were assassinated last week in a mysterious attack just north of the Syrian capital, Damascus. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based NGO that monitors the crisis in Syria, one of the victims gunned down when their car was ambushed was Iranian.


Syrian pro-regime Al-Watan newspaper confirmed the attack, but made no mention of an Iranian national being killed, counting only four victims and blaming Jabhat al-Nusra for the killings. However, Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah, which is also involved in fighting against rebels in Syria, accused the Israeli intelligence of the assassination, without denying the presence of the Iranian scientist among the victims.


Al-Watan wrote that the operation had been carried out on the Tal-Barzeh road while the engineers were on their way to the scientific research center in Barzeh, where they worked.


The assassination is the latest of a series of events and rumors linked to Syria’s nuclear program. Officially, the research center in Barzeh is Syria’s only declared nuclear center, the host of a miniature neutron source reactor developed with Chinese help beginning in 1991.  


But in September 2007, the Israeli Air Force bombed and destroyed a building in northwestern Syria that US and Israeli intelligence officials claimed was a plutonium-processing site. The Al-Kibar reactor, in Deir Ezzor Province, was completely wiped out. The Syrian government denied all accusations, but the bombing had already opened a Pandora’s box.


Investigation of the Al-Kibar site


In 2008, the IAEA Board of Directors travelled to the Deir Ezzor site to verify allegations that Syria had been building a nuclear facility with North Korean help. The investigation concluded in 2008 with the verdict that there were strong indications that it was probably a nuclear facility being built, but that it wasn’t operational at the time of the airstrike. The inspectors found traces and particles of anthropogenic natural uranium in samples taken from the site. The Syrian government blamed this on the Israeli missiles that destroyed the building. The samples were, therefore, inconclusive, though one of the reasons for this may be that, according to investigators, the site had been covered over in asphalt and a great deal of intervening time could have allowed evidence to be tampered with or otherwise concealed.


The UN agency reportalso mentions that there were three other locations linked to the bombed facility in Deir Ezzor that the Syrian government kept hidden from international eyes. In September 2011, an IAEA delegation traveled to Damascus to negotiate terms for another inspection of the Deir Ezzor site as well as these additional locations, but the Syrian government refused to give the inspectors access. No deal was reached.


“To date, the Agency has not received any such response from Syria on information to resolve outstanding questions regarding the [Deir Ezzor] site and the three other locations,” reads the most recent UN report. In 2011, after three years of investigation, the IAEA found Syria in noncompliance with its obligations under its Safeguards Agreement and referred the country to the UN Security Council. But the move came at the same time that a draft resolution condemning Syria's crackdown on protesters was being proffered, which Russia subsequently vetoed. The nuclear issue was sidelined and nearly forgotten.


A mysterious facility in Marj al-Sultan


The town of Marj al-Sultan, located 15 kilometers east of Damascus in the suburb of Al-Ghouta, hosts an important heliport for Syrian Army Mi-8 helicopters. In the Fall of 2012, Marj al-Sultan was the theater of fierce fighting between the Syrian Army and rebel deserters. The rebels, from the Free Syrian Army, took control of the military base in November 2012.


But there was another location in Marj al-Sultan — an apparent weapons storage facility — where fighting was also intense.  The Syrian Army had built it at the end of 2011, clearing an orchard to do so. Syrian activist sources told NOW that the facility was attacked, but that the attackers weren’t able to get beyond its reinforcements. Rebel sources told NOW that they remember the fighting, but had no inkling of a nuclear facility in the area. They assumed it was a weapons depot.


A month later, Financial Times and several other media outlets published information leaked by Western and Israeli diplomats that identified the facility as the most probable location where the Syrian government might have stored 50 tons of enriched uranium meant to fuel the bombed reactor in Deir Ezzor.


A February 2011 study by the US-based Institute for Science and International Security identified Marj al-Sultan as one of the three sites linked by UN inspectors to the Al-Kibar site. The study doesn’t indicate which of the three sites might have held the uranium, although Marj al-Sultan is the only location still under government control. The sites in the Hama and Homs regions are under Nusra Front and Islamic State (ISIS) control.


Syria never responded to the UN’s call for another inspection of the Deir Ezzor location or the others. “Since the Director General’s report of 28 August 2013, no new information has come to the knowledge of the Agency that [the Deir Ezzor] site was a nuclear reactor that should have been declared to the Agency by Syria. Concerning the three other locations, the Agency remains unable to provide any assessment concerning their nature or operational status,” the report of the investigation read.


A political bargaining chip for Damascus


There was never any official confirmation of the existence and storage of any nuclear fuel in Syria, says Mark Hibbs, a Berlin-basedsenior associate of the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program. “There is really no hard evidence. The samples from the reactor site have led to questions over the forensic detail about the uranium. There are people suggesting that forensic data was inconclusive because there might have been cross-contamination involved,” Hibbs told NOW. “What we know is that there are statements from the agency that the IAEA is confident that the installation destroyed by Israel was a nuclear reactor. But the detail of how the fuel supply was arranged is not clear.”


The fact that the international agencies are still unsure whether Syria had a nuclear program and whether it still holds an amount of nuclear fuel or not, however, might actually be to the Syrian regime’s advantage. Not knowing much about it is very troubling, says Hibbs. “The fuel [50 tons] would be a considerable lot of uranium and with Iran in the background there is always the concern that the fuel might have been moved to Iran. That’s important because of the negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, involving the IAEA. They have to make sure, in a comprehensive deal negotiated with Iran, that they have a good estimate of how much uranium Iran has.”


Hibbs also said that initially, Syrian nuclear activity was related to North Korea. It was only recently that the Iranian link was added, through reports that Syria might be involved in Iranian fuel processing. The link is further suggested by the presence of the Iranian engineer among the victims of the ambush last week.


In September 2014, a Russian delegation to the IAEA tried to remove the Syrian issue from the UN’s agenda. It failed, with most countries voting to keep the investigation ongoing.


Maintaining a shroud of mystery over an alleged nuclear program might also be used by the Syrian regime as a bargaining chip in its international relations. “Politically, people at the IAEA will tell you that they have no confidence whatsoever in the current political situation in the Middle East; that they are never going to get anywhere,” Hibbs said. “They rely on the government of Syria to permit access to the field. And there is no indication that [Bashar Assad] would permit them to do that unless there was going to be some kind of an agreement between Assad and the world powers to ensure the survival of the regime.”


Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609.

A map of the alleged nuclear locations identified by the UN nuclear watchdog and the Institute for Science and International Security.

They rely on the government of Syria to permit access to the field. And there is no indication that [Bashar Assad] would permit them to do that unless there was going to be some kind of an agreement between Assad and the world powers to ensure the survival of the regime.”