- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Obama administration and a U.N. watchdog agency want Syria to show inspectors a suspected uranium-conversion facility and two other nuclear sites possibly linked to the remnants of a covert arms program.

Since 2007, when Israel bombed the nuclear site at al Kibar, U.S. intelligence agencies feared the conversion plant near the town of Marj as-Sultan outside of Damascus was built to supply fuel to the bombed reactor, according to two former U.S. intelligence officers. Israeli jets destroyed the reactor site in September 2007, but not the suspected site at Marj as-Sultan.

Recent disclosures about the suspected uranium-conversion plant suggest Syria’s nuclear program is more expansive than previously known.

“Both the Bush and Obama administrations had and still have open questions about the facilities the IAEA is looking to inspect in Syria and what has become of the al Kibar site, including a facility that has been reported as Marj as-Sultan,” said Chuck Lutes, former director of nonproliferation at the White House National Security Council staff, who served in that capacity until September.

Before that, Mr. Lutes, a retired Air Force colonel, was director of counterproliferation under President George W. Bush.

The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will conduct an inspection on April 1 at a chemical-processing plant at Homs, Syria, the Associated Press reported Wednesday. The site, however, is not one of the original three sites the IAEA has asked to inspect in connection with the al Kibar site, also known in IAEA reports as the Dair Alzour site.

“Syria has not cooperated with the Agency since June 2008 in connection with the unresolved issues related to the Dair Alzour site and the other three locations allegedly functionally related to it,” stated the latest IAEA report to the Board of Governors on Syria’s suspected nuclear program.

Syria has publicly denied that al Kibar was a nuclear reactor. When IAEA inspectors found traces of man-made unenriched uranium in soil samples near the reactor in 2008, Syrian officials said the traces came from Israeli munitions, according to the IAEA report released Feb. 25.

Olli Heinonen, who was the chief inspector for the IAEA during the agency’s 2008 inspection of al Kibar, said in an interview the Syrian explanation for the traces of uranium was faulty. “We found the particles there,” he said. “And there was not a good explanation for that. The Syrians say it was from the Israeli bombs.”

The latest IAEA report on the Syrian program concludes, “The Agency has assessed that the probability that the particles originated from the missiles used to destroy the building is low. The Agency also assessed that there is a low probability that the particles were introduced by aerial dispersion.”

Officials confirmed suspicions about the three sites after the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung published a detailed story about the Marj as-Sultan facility last week. The newspaper stated that it had photos from inside the plant but withheld publishing them to protect the source.

The newspaper said the photos allowed them to make a “reasonable assumption that Syria was busy building a facility for the conversion of uranium, a preliminary stage in the production of fuel rods that could have been used in the presumed reactor.”

Mr. Heinonen said the new uranium-conversion facility was likely built for research because it appears too small to produce fuel at larger-scale industrial levels. “Most likely this facility disclosed in the German press was too small,” he said. “It was only research and development. The fuel for al Kibar had to come from somewhere else in Syria or from abroad.”

After the German report was published, the private Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, which tracks illicit nuclear proliferation, published what it said were commercial satellite photographs of the site on its website (isis-online.org.)

“The facility’s operational status is unknown,” the ISIS report said. “However, there is suspicion that Syria may have emptied the buildings prior to mid-2008 and taken steps to disguise previous activities at the site.”

A senior U.S. official interviewed for this article said he did not know whether the facility at Marj as-Sultan was operational or not.

“Looking at the stuff that has been in the press and what [ISIS] has shown, there is significant questions about the Marj as-Sultan facility,” said the senior U.S. official. “It remains a question about the scope and breadth of their nuclear program and remains unclear also if there is ongoing activity there. The satellite photos from ISIS indicate that perhaps there is not activity, but it’s hard to know. That is why we need to know what they were doing and what they are doing.”

A spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in Washington declined to comment for the article.

The standoff between Syria and the IAEA over the suspected nuclear sites could also affect Middle East diplomacy.

“There has been a push internationally to possibly invoke special inspections by the IAEA,” said Mr. Lutes, now with the Project on National Security Reform.

Special inspections are more intrusive than the kind of collaborative approach to inspections most countries allow, by which the schedule and content of the inspections are planned out beforehand between the country and the IAEA.

Special inspections, according to Mr. Lutes, have only been invoked twice before, once in Romania after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, and then in 1993 to determine the extent of North Korea’s nuclear program.

In 1993, the call for special inspections resulted in North Korea expelling IAEA inspectors, which touched off the first of several nuclear confrontations with the reclusive Pyongyang regime.

Mr. Lutes said the potential value in calling for a “special inspection” of the Syrian facilities would be that it could force the IAEA to refer the Syria file to the U.N. Security Council if the Syria refuses to allow the inspections as it has since 2008.

If the U.N. Security Council took up the Syria file, Damascus would be in the same kind of diplomatic jeopardy as Iran and North Korea today.

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