The first signs appeared in 2003 when the Russian Foreign Ministry inadvertently revealed that a Russian-Syrian agreement for the delivery of a nuclear power plant in an undisclosed Syrian location had been signed.
In 2004, Syrian President Bashar Assad made a point to say that Syria would not dispose of its WMD program until Israel did the same. “Since some of my country is occupied,” Assad added, “Syria can legitimately use all the necessary means to liberate its territories.”
German magazine Der Spiegel revealed in March 2004 that Swedish authorities and the CIA were investigating a very likely Syrian nuclear program secretly developed in Homs in the northern part of the country. That July, investigators looking into the Pakistani nuclear network of A.Q. Khan pointed out that Syria may have procured centrifuges capable of enriching uranium to produce a bomb.
This fact was confirmed in May 2006 in a declassified report to the U.S. Congress on the acquisition of technology relating to weapons of mass destruction. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Syria also got help from Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Keep in mind that Syria’s economy was very dependent on Iraq’s trade, especially oil-smuggling revenues. Sunday Telegraph journalist Con Coughlin affirmed in a September 2004 article that 12 Iraqi nuclear scientists — who were transferred to Syria and given new identities before the war — were on their way to Iran to assist their counterparts there in building a nuclear weapon. “The results of the research would then be shared with Syria,” Coughlin added.
But what really broke the camel’s back was a recent report from the well-informed Kuwaiti daily newspaper Al Seyassah. It quoted European intelligence sources as saying that “Syria has an advanced nuclear program” in a secret site located in the province of Al Hassaka, close to the Turkish and Iraqi borders. British sources quoted by the paper believe that “it is President Assad’s brother, Colonel Maher Assad and his cousin Rami Makhlouf, who supervise the program.”
This nuclear weapons program is based on material that Saddam Hussein’s two sons shipped to Syria before — and during — the U.S. war against Iraq. According to the Kuwaiti newspaper, this explains why international investigative teams found no proof of Hussein’s nuclear program.
Furthermore, British sources in Brussels affirm that “Iranian nuclear experts contribute to the Syrian program along with 60 Iraqi experts who had taken refuge in Syria since 2003 and experts from the ex-Soviet republics.” British intelligence says this information is validated by their German counterparts, who were well established in the countries close to the ex- Communist block, including Syria.
Europeans fear that a focus solely on the Iranian nuclear program might facilitate a much quieter joint Iranian-Syrian program of uranium enrichment in Hassaka. The geographical choice for the Syrian nuclear site is very meaningful. Because it is located in an area with a Kurdish majority, the program evades Western suspicions. And striking against these installations would initially hurt the Kurds — who historically have sided with the West against the Baathist regimes in both Baghdad and Damascus.
In light of all these facts, it is not surprising that Syria might actually turn out to be “Plan B” for the mullahs’ regime in Tehran. This is, in fact, quite a smart strategy: While the world community focuses on Iran, Syria can continue its own nuclear program without unwelcome attention.
But because of the close links between Tehran and Damascus, sealed by an important defense agreement signed over the summer and the fact that Syria would do anything to please its benefactor, Syria getting the bomb would be exactly like Iran getting it. For proof, Al Seyassah reported on Dec. 13 that top Syrian leaders had transferred $3 billion to the Iranian central bank.
Need we say more?
Olivier Guitta is a foreign affairs and counterterrorism consultant in Washington, D.C.