Syria Reactor Story a Diversion; But From What?

The US and Israel accused Syria on Thursday of building a secret nuclear reactor with North Korean help. There was a lot of innuendo in the press that the reactor was intended for nuclear weapons production. But AFP notes:

‘ They said US intelligence had “high confidence” that the structure bombed by the Israelis was a nuclear reactor, “medium confidence” that the North Koreans were involved in building it, and “low confidence” that plutonium from it was for nuclear weapons.

Because other elements of a weapons program, such as a plutonium reprocessing plant, had not been detected, US intelligence was less certain that the plutonium was for nuclear weapons, they said.’

We would have to know exactly what kind of reactor it was to know if it was suitable to help in a weapons program. As the Bush administration admits, there isn’t any evidence of that.

Moreover, I’m not really very impressed that they only have medium confidence that North Korea was involved.

Even the high confidence that the building was a reactor cannot be just accepted without question. They had high confidence that Saddam had a nuclear weapons program in the early zeros, which was not true. We should be skeptical about these sorts of stories until we see the proof.

I have been disappointed that more nuclear engineers in the US do not express themselves publicly on what is likely and unlikely. This story seems to me fishy. Syria is a poor state. Where would it have gotten the money for a reactor? Why exactly are there doubts that North Korea was involved? How much of the intelligence is from US sources and how much from Israeli? The latter are highly politicized. The head of Mossad in 2002 expressed confidence that Saddam was close to getting nukes.

Moreover, while I am against proliferation of nuclear weapons, the idea that the Israelis can just bomb anyone’s innocent research or civilian power reactor any time they like for no good reason is scary. The Israelis rejected the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and broke with international consensus to acquire by hook and crook British, French and US nuclear secrets and built dozens, perhaps hundreds of nuclear bombs, provoking the nuclear weapons race in the region.

The real question is the timing of the announcement, since the bombing happened a long time ago. It is suspicious to me that the announcement was made just after a spy for Israel was arrested in the US who had stolen US nuclear secrets. Is it diversionary?

Syria expert Josh Landis discusses a different theory of diversion, having to do with revelations that Syria and Israel are closer to an agreement on the future of the Golan Heights.

I’d add that former president Jimmy Carter’s recent trip to meet with Hamas leaders has put pressure on Israel to come back in a serious way to the negotiating table. Also Hamas’s own apparent change in stance on diplomacy, as Helena Cobban discusses.

Bush’s own remarks Thursday that he is seeking a viable Palestine that does not look like Swiss cheese revealed some of what the administration must have been pressing the Israelis on in recent months in preparation for Bush’s trip in May.

So the timing of the Syria reactor announcement does seem suspicious in Middle East terms. If the US doesn’t in fact think there is any evidence that the reactor had weapons implications, then it is really a non story, and releasing it can only be for hoopla reasons.

Here is Aljazeera’s report on the issue, which contains yet another diversionary theory, that the revelations are aimed at pressuring North Korea:

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