x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Nuclear report puts heat on Syria

A UN report into allegations that Damascus has been running a secret nuclear programme could yet turn into Syria's most serious foreign policy crisis in years.

DAMASCUS // A report by UN inspectors into allegations that Damascus has been running a secret nuclear programme could yet turn into Syria's most serious foreign policy crisis in years. Investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found no conclusive evidence supporting accusations that a nuclear reactor was under construction in al Kibar, a location on the Euphrates River in northeastern Syria. However, the IAEA did not clear Syria's name, as Damascus had hoped it would.

"While it cannot be excluded that the building in question was intended for non-nuclear use, the features of the building? along with the connectivity of the site to adequate pumping capacity of cooling water are similar to what may be found in connection with a reactor site," the report said. The findings, presented to a meeting of the UN nuclear watchdog in Vienna on Friday, have not been officially released to the public. However, a senior United Nations official, cited in press reports, said soil samples taken by the IAEA team during a fact-finding mission to the site contained "a significant number" of chemically processed natural uranium particles.

"No such nuclear material had so far been declared in Syria's inventory? In principle, that sort of nuclear material should not exist there," the official was quoted as saying. "It's not usual to find man-made uranium in sand." In addition, the usually cautious IAEA said Syria had not heeded requests to share documentation about the alleged reactor building, which was destroyed in an Israeli air raid last September, and had also not responded to requests that inspectors be allowed to visit to three other suspect sites.

Syria's immediate public response came from Ibrahim Othman, the head of its Atomic Energy Commission. "If every square building, every rectangular building would be a reactor? then there are a lot of reactors in the world," he said stressing that there was no proof of a nuclear project. "Collecting three particles from the desert doesn't mean there was a reactor there. In our opinion this file should be closed."

In Damascus there was little official comment on the matter, the state-controlled media running cursory stories highlighting the small amounts of nuclear particles that had been found, and underlining the IAEA's criticism of Israel. Tel Aviv has not co-operated with the UN inspectors over information about the type of munitions used in the attack. Syria has repeatedly claimed that any traces of nuclear material could only have come from the bombs that destroyed the building. But the nuclear traces found by the IAEA were not depleted uranium, a type of nuclear waste used in US and Israeli armour-piercing weapons.

This relative silence in Syria - and Mr Othman's comment about "closing" the nuclear file - suggest Damascus has not yet decided how to react, observers and commentators here say. "The Syrian strategy will probably be to play for time on this and keep their options open," said one Syrian analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Syria's policy will be not to have a policy. They will wait and see. They will try to wait out the Bush administration and then see what [President-elect Barack] Obama does, and they will react to that.

"Time is the key. The Syrians will bet that Bush is not in a position to decide anything." Khalid Aboud, the secretary of Syria's parliament, said in an interview that Damascus would continue to work with the IAEA, but not unconditionally. "Syria will always co-operate with UN organisations," he said. "But with the condition that Syria always defends its rights on national sovereignty." Such ambiguity echoed that of Mr Othman in Vienna. He emphasised Syria would continue to co-operate with the IAEA while insisting there was no need for follow-up visits by IAEA inspectors and that Damascus would not sign the so-called Additional Protocol, which gives the UN watchdog increased inspection rights.

Again, analysts here interpreted this as a way for Damascus to keep its options open while it waits to see how the international community, and the United States in particular, reacts. In part the lack of clear direction may have been accentuated by the death of Gen Mohammed Suleiman, who was killed in August by a gunman on Syria's Mediterranean coast. He was trusted by the Syrian authorities and had been their liaison with the IAEA over the nuclear investigation. He has not as yet been replaced.

The last major foreign policy crisis to engulf Damascus happened after the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. Syria was accused of involvement in the killing and, for a time, came under intense pressure from a UN investigation. Damascus initially refused to meet certain demands from the inquiry, but, as the situation grew more serious, began to make concessions, eventually co-operating when it became clear that was the best way to diffuse the matter.

Although the Hariri investigation remained a danger to Syria for years, and forced Damascus into diplomatic isolation from the West, the threat was eventually overcome. The Hariri investigation continues, but is no longer seen as a definitive problem for Syria, which has always denied any role in the killing. The policy of wait and see, coupled with co-operation when it proved absolutely necessary, saw Syria though the Hariri storm and Syria may well use the same approach this time.

The IAEA's critical report comes just as Syria has been undergoing a diplomatic renaissance. Damascus this year helped diffuse a dangerous political crisis in Lebanon and soon afterwards Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, was invited to Paris for talks with Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president. Until then, French-Syria ties had been frozen because of the Hariri killing. That meeting was followed by a return visit to Damascus by the French president, who asked Syria to mediate talks with the Iranians over Tehran's nuclear programme. Other senior European politicians have also recently been courting Syria, including last week's trip by the British foreign minister in which Syria and the UK were reported to have agreed to resume top-level intelligence ties.

Syria and Israel, which remain officially in a state of war over the occupied Golan Heights, have also been holding back-channel negotiations, a chink of light for a Middle East peace process that has been stalled for years. Coupled with the election to the White House of Mr Obama, a Democrat, there was a sense that Damascus had successfully survived the dark days of the Bush administration, which had talked of regime change in Syria, and was finally facing a more uncomplicated future.

These IAEA findings may not have torpedoed such hopes but they have surely guaranteed the coming weeks and months will not be plain sailing for Syria. As one crisis ends, so another begins. psands@thenational.ae