DAMASCUS // If the latest rebuke by the United Nations nuclear watchdog against Syria caused any alarm in Damascus, the authorities here are certainly not showing it. On Thursday Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Syria was not fully co-operating with his investigation into uranium particles, found in the eastern desert at a site that Israel and the US claim was a secret nuclear reactor.
Syria insists that the facility, which was destroyed in an Israeli air strike more than two years ago, was a conventional military base and that any uranium found there must have come from Israel's bombs. In his statement to the IAEA's board of directors in Vienna, Mr ElBaradei said Damascus had "not provided the co-operation necessary" to support its claim, either through documents or by granting access for follow-up inspections.
In addition to the bombed site, the UN team say they found particles of uranium at Syria's small nuclear research lab that are not in its declared inventory. The neutron reactor has been authorised by the UN, but under the terms of its operation, Damascus should inform the IAEA of any new experiments undertaken, something that had not been done. These new and unexpected uranium traces are currently being tested, Mr ElBaradei said.
Nonetheless Syria, which has consistently claimed its innocence, clearly feels it has little to fear from the IAEA. "The UN cannot just say 'we will visit this site, or we will go to that place', they do not have the power under international law," said an official from the ruling Baath party, on condition of anonymity. Smartly dressed in a well-cut suit and red tie, he appeared unperturbed by the ongoing nuclear controversy.
IAEA inspectors would certainly not be given permission to carry out new searches for evidence on Syrian military bases, he said. They had been allowed one set of inspections and, as far as Syria was concerned, that meant it had fully met its obligation to co-operate. "These are issues of sovereignty and self-determination," the Baathist insisted. "It's a question of dignity." Syria has not forgotten how supposedly independent UN weapons inspectors in Iraq during the 1990s were, in fact, reporting back to western intelligence agencies, something Damascus - still at war with Israel - does not want to let happen in its case.
The well-dressed Baathist said Syria was wary of any Iraq-style conspiracy designed to justify military action by its enemies. "We all know what happened in Saddam Hussein's case," he said. "There were fabricated claims he had weapons of mass destruction when he had nothing. But by the time the truth was known, the Americans had already invaded." In his comments, Mr ElBaradei was also critical of Israel and the US, both of which have claimed to have evidence of a covert Syrian nuclear programme. That evidence, if it exists, has not been shared with the United Nations, Mr ElBaradei said.
"When there is talk about transparency, let it come from all sides," said the Baathist. "Let us be honest, this is not some impartial or apolitical situation, there are double standards here and bad intentions aimed towards us. "If we are talking about illegal nuclear weapons programmes, why aren't IAEA inspectors going into Israel to check? They have 200 nuclear warheads and no one says anything about that. Where are the inspectors?
"Here is Syria's position: We support the idea of a nuclear weapons free Middle East. Let that be the goal of the international community." Mr ElBaradei long ago made clear his frustrations that, in launching a unilateral attack on the Syrian site rather than going through formal - and peaceful - inspection channels, Israel had effectively made it impossible to ever know the truth about the alleged nuclear programme.
The bombs demolished most of whatever was there and Syria, insisting that it will not compromise national security by allowing inspectors to go wherever they please, has made sure that the remains cannot be more thoroughly examined. As a result, claims of a Syrian nuclear programme are unlikely to be either proven or disproved. Given that the US and Europe are already re-engaging with Damascus after years of diplomatic isolation, and given that the West is far more concerned about Iran's nuclear ambitions, Syria's sense is that its own nuclear controversy is already fading away.
It is a conclusion that was essentially confirmed by Mr ElBaradei, who appeared to signal that his investigation had run its course and was now almost certainly futile. "The agency will continue its efforts to verify Syria's statements within the authority available to it," he said. "Without Syria's co-operation, or access to information that may be available to other States, including Israel, the agency will not be able to progress much further in its verification efforts."
So, if the Baath party member in Damascus was not acting alarmed, it is because he saw no cause to be. Syria is apparently sure, not without reason, that this matter is now all but finished with. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org