x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Syria rejects atomic watchdog's inspection request

Bid by International Atomic Energy Agency for random checks at suspected Deir Ezzor reactor site destroyed in bombing raids by the Israeli air force refused by President Bashar al Assad

DAMASCUS // Syria has rebuffed an unprecedented personal request from the director general of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog for more cooperation in an ongoing investigation.

A series of news reports this week revealed that Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), sent a letter to the Syrian foreign minister in November, asking that his inspection teams be given "prompt access to relevant information and locations" of an alleged nuclear reactor site. The site was destroyed in bombing raids by the Israeli air force in 2007.

It was the first time an IAEA head had made a direct appeal for cooperation from Syria, instead of going through routine channels. However, according to diplomats quoted by the Reuters and Agence France-Press news agencies, that request has not been met.

Syrian authorities have made no public comment on the matter but in a interview with The Wall Street Journal in January, some two months after Mr Amano sent his letter, Syria's president, Bashar al Assad, emphatically rejected the idea of additional IAEA inspections at the suspect site.

"This time they asked Syria to sign the additional protocol that they [inspectors] can come any time. No, we are not going to sign," he said, of the IAEA's request.

Denying that the disputed site in eastern Syria was in any way linked to a clandestine nuclear programme, Mr al Assad expressed confidence that a clash with the IAEA, due to hold its next general meeting in March with Syria firmly on the agenda, could still be avoided.

"I think now we are discussing with them. Most of the issues are technical and legal actually," he said, stressing that cooperation would continue in its "normal" way.

Syria has been subject to a UN atomic probe after the Israeli air force destroyed what Tel Aviv and Washington claim was an nuclear reactor under construction in Deir Ezzor.

Damascus allowed IAEA inspectors to carry out tests at the site in 2008 but, when investigators subsequently said they had found unexplained traces of atomic materials and needed to carry out further examinations, they were denied permission to return.

Syria insists it is not required to grant repeat access under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and maintains that any suspect material must have been contained in the Israeli bombs, something Mr Amano admitted was possible but "highly unlikely".

Under the stewardship of Mr Amano, who took over as director general in 2009, the IAEA appears to have taken a harder line on Syria, even suggesting that it may evoke a "special inspection" mechanism, previously used against only North Korea and Romania.

This would require approval by the UN Security Council and would give IAEA teams the power to conduct inspections anywhere in Syria at short notice.

In the Wall Street Journal interview, Mr al Assad effectively ruled out any Syrian accedence to such special measures, arguing that UN teams would be used by Syria's enemies as a way of spying on its military capabilities.

Damascus remains in a state of war with Israel, which has illegally occupied Syria's Golan Heights for decades. Damascus also has a fragile relationship with Israel's key supporter, the United States, which has imposed economic sanctions against Syria over its backing of Hamas and Hizbollah, militant Islamic groups that Washington considers terrorist organisations.

While a potential conflict between Syria and the UN still looms, Damascus has moved to accelerate plans for a nuclear power programme, for which it is seeking IAEA cooperation.

In July Syria's Atomic Energy Commission submitted a paper to the IAEA outlining possible locations for three nuclear power stations, with the first due to become operational in 2025.

That timetable has been speeded up, according to a Syrian presentation made at the IAEA last week, in which it suggested a first nuclear power plant could now be built as early as 2020.

Syria suffers from frequent power blackouts, a situation that is expected to worsen by 2015 unless new power stations are brought online.

psands@thenational.ae