Courtesy Reuters

How to React to a Reactor

Using Syria’s Nuclear Program to Engage Damascus

In his confirmation hearing in March, Robert S. Ford, the U.S. ambassador-designate to Syria, listed five issues that will be at the core of the Obama administration’s engagement with Damascus. Four were familiar: the United States wants Syria to prevent jihadi fighters from entering Iraq, end its support for Hezbollah, return to peace talks with Israel, and respect human rights at home.

But the fifth issue was a new one: Ford argued that Washington should insist that Syria end its foot-dragging on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s investigation into its nuclear activities. For nearly two years, Syria has refused to cooperate with the IAEA’s probe of a suspected nuclear reactor that was destroyed by Israel in September 2007.  Now the IAEA may request a rare “special inspection” of Syrian sites, making the country’s nuclear defiance the international community’s main point of contention with Damascus -- eclipsing even the investigation into Syrian officials’ involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri.

Indeed, the international community cannot afford to let Syria’s proliferation attempts go unaddressed, since the violations threaten the global nonproliferation regime and may be evidence of a wider nuclear program. Even more, the IAEA’s investigation could provide Washington much needed leverage in its increasingly trying diplomatic engagement with Damascus.

The story of Syria’s nuclear program has been quietly building for more than two and a half years. On September 6, 2007, Israeli jets took part in Operation Orchard, bombing a nondescript building at a site in eastern Syria called Al-Kibar, near the city of Deir ez-Zor. In April 2008, U.S. intelligence authorities released a video showing that the building had hid construction of a graphite-cooled nuclear reactor similar to North Korea’s reactor at Yongbyon, which produces plutonium for the country’s nuclear weapons. The video contained satellite photographs of the site, still shots of the reactor under construction, and a photograph of the directors of North Korea’s and Syria’s nuclear

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