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Syria

Nuclear

Last Updated: April, 2018

A non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) since 1969, and a proponent of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East, Syria has harbored nuclear weapons ambitions.

Damascus is currently known to possess only one small operational research reactor, the Chines-built miniature neutron source reactor (MNSR), or SRR-1. Starting in the 1970s, Syria sought the assistance of numerous parties, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea to develop its nuclear program.

Syria's nuclear program came under significant international scrutiny after Israel's September 2007 airstrike on Al-Kibar (referred to as Dair Alzour in IAEA documents), where Syria was constructing an undeclared plutonium production reactor with North Korean assistance. IAEA attempts to investigate the country's nuclear program have been hindered by limited Syrian cooperation and the ongoing civil war. The The government has repeatedly denied IAEA inspection requests for Al-Kibar and suspicious sites near the towns of Maysaf, Marjas-Sultan, and Iskandariyah and maintains that all are non-nuclear military facilities. [1]

Capabilities

The Atomic Energy Commission of Syria (AECS) directs Syria's limited nuclear program, and the majority of Syria's nuclear-related work takes place at the Der Al-Hadjar Nuclear Research Center and the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) in Damascus. Syria's sole operational reactor, the Chinese-built 30KWt SRR-1 research reactor, is under IAEA safeguards. The SRR-1 yields minute quantities of plutonium in its spent fuel, making it unsuitable for fissile material production. Additionally, its quantity of HEU fuel is insufficient for a nuclear weapon. Syria has not developed full nuclear fuel-cycle expertise and is not known to possess enrichment or reprocessing technologies. [2]

In May 2011, after years of investigating, the IAEA concluded that the Al-Kibar facility, destroyed by Israel in 2007, was "very likely a nuclear reactor" and should have been declared to the IAEA. [3] Based on the information and photographs provided to the IAEA by two states (presumably the United States and Israel), as well as the images procured by the Agency itself, the IAEA report stated that the dimensions of the facility were "similar to the 25 MW(th) gas cooled graphite reactor at Yongbyon in the DPRK." [4] The IAEA further estimated that "the reactor had 843 fuel channels and 79 access ports" and "may have had a thermal power of 25 MW or higher." [5] The findings pointed to a significantly more advanced nuclear capability in Syria than previously believed, and drew particular attention to illicit technology procurement and assistance from North Korea to the Syrian program.

History

The 1970s and 1980s: Decades of Disappointment

Syria was an early entrant to the NPT, signing the treaty in 1968 and ratifying it the following year. Compared to other Middle Eastern states, many of which commenced nuclear programs soon after U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1953 Atoms for Peace speech, Syria began its nuclear program quite late. Syria founded the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) in the early 1970s, and only in 1976 did Damascus establish the AECS and declare its intention to pursue nuclear power. [6] The AECS began work on only six projects with the IAEA. Most significantly, Syria consulted with the IAEA regarding its nuclear options, resulting in an ambitious national plan to construct six 600 MWe reactors by the 1990s. [7]

By the early 1980s Syria realized it was not capable of indigenously producing a single nuclear reactor, let alone six, and sought assistance from states such as the Soviet Union, Belgium, Switzerland and France to acquire a reactor. More than thirty firms bid on the proposed reactor, including at least one U.S. firm, but Syria ultimately chose the French firm Sofratome. Sofratome backed out of the agreement following feasibility studies, as the Syrians lacked the resources to finance the reactor. Frustrated, Syria again approached the Soviet Union in 1985, hoping its friendly relations with the superpower would translate into acquisition of a nuclear reactor. The negotiations yielded plans for construction of a 2 to 10MWt research reactor and an associated research center. Progress was slow due to financial disagreements and the project was retired while still in the design phase in 1991. [8]

1990-2007: Limited Progress

In 1990, Syria concluded a $100 million nuclear deal with Argentina. [9] The state-controlled National Institute of Applied Research (INVAP) agreed to provide Syria with a 10MWt research reactor, and Argentina's Comision Nacional de Energia Atomica (CNEA) was to provide the requisite uranium hexafluoride reactor fuel, enriched to a maximum of 20 percent U-235. The deal also included a radiological protection center and a hot cell lab for producing radioisotopes. [10] However, the Argentinean government vetoed the deal in 1995, stating that a special nuclear cooperation treaty with Syria was a prerequisite to the implementation of the deal. [11] Argentina allegedly received strong pressure from both the United States and Israel to block the deal. Similarly, India's offer to provide Syria with a 5MWt reactor was shelved in 1991 under significant U.S. pressure. [12]

Syrian nuclear ambitions finally met with limited success in 1991 when China began constructing the SRR-1 research reactor as part of an IAEA technical assistance project. China also provided Syria with 980.4g of uranium enriched to 90.2% U-235 to fuel the reactor, intended to ensure operation for 2,000 hours per year for ten years. [13] Fuel depletion now limits current operation to only two hours per day. [14] The SRR-1 reactor is modeled after the Canadian Slowpoke 2 reactor and is used for neutron activation analysis (NAA), training, and small-scale radioisotope production. Syria concluded a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA in 1992 and the reactor went critical in 1996. [15]

In 1998, the intergovernmental Russia-Syria Commission on Trade and Scientific and Technical Cooperation signed a deal for the peaceful use of nuclear power, which included a desalination facility powered by a 25MW light-water reactor. The project did not progress and is likely to have collapsed under U.S. pressure, similar to the Argentinean and Indian negotiations in the early 1990s. [16] In 2003, Syria signed a $2 billion nuclear deal with Russia that included a nuclear power plant and a nuclear seawater desalination facility. [17] The announcement of the deal was originally placed on the Russian Foreign Ministry website and received a considerable amount of negative attention. The Foreign Ministry spokesman quickly refuted claims that any such discussion had taken place. [18]

There was little open source basis for concern about a Syrian nuclear weapons program prior to the 2007 revelation of a plutonium production reactor at Al-Kibar. However, Syria's other WMD endeavors, namely in the chemical weapons arena, led countries such as the United States to closely monitor its activities and oppose sensitive technology transfers. A 2004 CIA report found that Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan may have provided Syria with nuclear information and equipment. [19] According to a 2007 statement by President Bashar al-Assad, while Khan approached Syria in 2001 with an offer to provide it with nuclear equipment, he rejected the offer. [20]

2007-2012: Israeli Airstrike and Its Aftermath

On 6 September 2007, Israel destroyed a facility near the Euphrates River in the Northeastern region of Dair Alzour. Referred to as "Al-Kibar," the facility was a partially completed 25MWt gas-cooled graphite-moderated nuclear reactor, which would have been capable of producing enough plutonium for one or two weapons per year. [21] 

Problematically for IAEA inspections, and in a move that raised questions concerning whether it had something to hide, Syria leveled what remained of Al-Kibar and built over it only three days after the airstrike. In April 2008, U.S. intelligence released photos reportedly taken at the site prior to the airstrike, whose remarkable similarity to images of Yongbyon suggested to analysts that the facility had been a nuclear reactor developed with North Korean assistance. [22]

The IAEA was finally provided unrestricted access to the site on 23 June 2008, which enabled inspectors to decipher its layout, dimensions, containment structures, and water-pumping infrastructure. In its subsequent report, the agency found that the containment structure and overall size of the building could be sufficient for a nuclear reactor, and the water pumping capacity was "adequate for a reactor size referred to in the allegations." [23] Inspectors also found uranium particles, which Syria claimed derived from Israeli munitions. [24]

The June 2008 visit raised as many questions as it answered. In November 2008, the IAEA Board of Governors sent letters to both Israel and Syria requesting more information on Al-Kibar. [25] The Agency also asked Syria for access to additional sites, which Syria had refused during the June 2008 inspection. Syria's February 2009 response reiterated that Al-Kibar had been a military site, and did not permit additional inspections. That same month the IAEA released a second report which revealed that environmental samples had yielded additional traces of anthropogenic (or manmade) uranium and rejected Syrian claims that the uranium was derived from dropped Israeli munitions. [26] 

In March 2010, a physical inventory verification (PIV) was conducted at the SRR-1, during which Syria provided information on previously unreported activities involving the conversion of yellowcake to uranyl nitrate. [27] Syria also submitted design information for the SRR-1 and other relevant documentation. [28] However, there continued to be inconsistencies between IAEA findings and the information provided by Syria, which promoted further discussions and the conclusion, in September 2010, of a plan of action to resolve the inconsistencies. On 1 April 2011, IAEA inspectors visited the Phosphoric Acid Pilot Plant and other related locations to take environmental samples and destructive analysis samples from the yellowcake by-product of the phosphoric acid production. The Agency then concluded that the results of its analysis were "not inconsistent" with Syria's explanation of the origin of anthropogenic uranium particles. The matter was thus moved to the "routine implementation of safeguards." [29]

In December 2010, the Institute for Science and International Security released satellite images of situated near the cities of Maysaf, Marj as Sultan, and Iskandariyah, reported by the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung and IAEA member states to be functionally related to Al-Kibar. The Institute for Science and International Security alleged that the Marj as-Sultan facility was a uranium conversion site, and that the Masyaf and Iskandariyah facilities were storage sites. [30]

While Damascus stonewalled the IAEA investigation into Al-Kibar, the United States and Israel provided the Agency with photographs allegedly taken at the site prior to and soon after its destruction, and the IAEA also procured commercial satellite and radar imagery to conduct its analysis. On the basis of this information, in May 2011, the Director General's report concluded that the destroyed facility at Al-Kibar "was very likely a nuclear reactor," asserting that Syria should have declared it and provided the Agency with design information pursuant to Code 3.1 of Subsidiary Arrangements to its Safeguards Agreement. [31]

Following the report, at its June 2011 session, the IAEA Board of Governors adopted a resolution finding Syria in non-compliance with its obligations under its Safeguards Agreement, and reported the case to the UN Security Council. The Board called on Syria to respond without delay to the Agency's requests for information and access to the sites, materials, and individuals required for verification. The Board also called upon Syria to sign, bring into force, and fully implement the Additional Protocol to its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. [32] The resolution was adopted by a vote of 17 in favor, 6 against, and 11 abstentions; one state did not take part in the vote. [33]

In October 2011, IAEA inspectors visited Damascus; however, no progress was made in meetings with Syrian authorities on obtaining full access to other locations believed to be functionally related to Al-Kibar. [34] 

2013-Present: The Syrian Civil War and Continued Work on a Nuclear Program?

The unpredictable nature of the Syrian civil war has complicated the IAEA’s attempts to access sites of interest in the country. In June 2013, after a United Nations Department of Safety and Security assessment of Syria's security conditions, the IAEA decided that any verification of the nuclear material would be postponed until security conditions improve. [35]  In February 2013, video footage released by Syrian rebels showed that the Free Syrian Army opposition, along with members from the Ja'far al-Tayyar brigade and the Al Nusra Front, had taken control of Al-Kibar. Interestingly, scud missiles are visible in the footage, indicating that the Syrian government converted Al-Kibar to a missile storage facility after the 2007 Israeli strike. [36] Reportedly, the Islamic State took over the site in the summer of 2014 and excavated the site looking for radioactive material. 

Despite repeated calls by the IAEA for Syria to cooperate, the Syrian government continues to deny that Al-Kibar was a nuclear facility and also maintains that the facilities at Marj as-Sultan, Masyaf, and Iskandariyah are non-nuclear military sites. [37] On 6 September 2017, Israel conducted an airstrike on the Masyaf facility after determining it housed Syrian chemical weapons and missiles. [38] 

On 9 January 2015, the German news source, Spiegel Online, published an article alleging that the Syrian government was still trying to develop nuclear weapons at a secret underground facility near the town of Al-Qasyr, close to the Lebanese border. [39] Multiple investigations into the claims have yet to uncover any corroborating evidence. [40]
 
On 23 March 2018, a decade after the strike on Al-Kibar, Israel tacitly admitted responsibility when the government allowed the newspaper Haaretz to publish a highly detailed account of the operation. The report contained interviews with former military and intelligence officials in charge of the strike, interviews with the pilots who took part in the attack, and alleged video footage of the attack. [41]

Sources:
[1] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, GOV/2013/41, 28 August 2013; "Introductory Statement to the Board of Governors," Statement by the Director General, International Atomic Energy Agency, 8 June 2015, www.iaea.org; "Statement to the 2015 Review Conference of Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)," Statement by the Director General, International Atomic Energy Agency, 27 April 2015, www.iaea.org; "Nuclear, Syria: Production Capability," Jane's CBRN Assessments, IHS Global Limited, 17 June 2015, www.janes.ihs.com.
[2] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, "Syria: Country Profile," www.sipri.org; Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, ed. Mark Fitzpatrick, (London, UK: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), pp. 73-82; "Nuclear, Syria: Production Capability," Jane's CBRN Assessments, IHS Global Limited, 17 June 2015, www.janes.ihs.com.
[3] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, GOV/2011/30, 24 May 2011.
[4] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, GOV/2011/30, 24 May 2011.
[5] David Albright and Paul Brannan, "ISIS Report: The Al Kibar Reactor: Extraordinary Camouflage, Troubling Implications," Institute for Science and International Security, 12 May 2008, www.isis-online.org; Anthony Cordesman, "An Overview: Syrian Weapons of Mass Destruction," Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2 June 2008, www.csis.org.
[6] Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, ed. Mark Fitzpatrick, (London, UK: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), pp. 73-82.
[7] For a list of IAEA-Syria technical cooperation projects see, Federation of American Scientists, "IAEA-TC Projects by Country," www.fas.org.
[8] Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, ed. Mark Fitzpatrick, (London, UK: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), pp. 73-82.
[9] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, "Syria: Country Profile," www.sipri.org
[10] Richard Kessler, "Argentina to Ink Research Reactor Deal Soon with Syria, Says CNEA," Nucleonics Week, 31 May 1990.
[11] David Makovsky, "Argentina: We won't sell reactor to Syria," Jerusalem Post, 24 July 1995, www.jpost.com.
[12] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, "Syria: Country Profile," www.sipri.org.
[13] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Syrian Arab Republic: Research Reactor Details-SRR-1," www.iaea.org; Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, ed. Mark Fitzpatrick, (London, UK: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), pp. 73-82.
[14] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Syrian Arab Republic: Research Reactor Details-SRR-1," www.iaea.org.
[15] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Syrian Arab Republic: Research Reactor Details-SRR-1," www.iaea.org; Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, ed. Mark Fitzpatrick, (London, UK: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), pp. 73-82.
[16] Global Security, "What are Syria's Nuclear Capabilities?" www.globalsecurity.org.
[17] Jeremy M. Sharp, RL33487, "Syria: Background and U.S. Relations," Congressional Research Service, 1 May 2008, www.fas.org; Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, "Syria: Country Profile," www.sipri.org.
[18] Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, ed. Mark Fitzpatrick, (London, UK: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008), pp. 73-82; Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, "Syria: Country Profile," www.sipri.org.
[19] Bruno Tertrais, "Kahn's Nuclear Exports: Was There a State Strategy?," in Getting MAD: Nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction, Its Origins and Practice, (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2004) pp. 15-51.
[20] "Assad Says in 2001 He Rejected Offer from Pakistani Smugglers to Buy Nukes," Jerusalem Post, 20 December 2007; Bruno Tertrais, "Kahn's Nuclear Exports: Was There a State Strategy?" in Getting MAD: Nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction, Its Origins and Practice, (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2004) pp. 15-51.
[21] IAEA Board of Governors, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," 19 November 2008, www.iaea.org.
[22] David Albright and Paul Brannan, "ISIS Report: The Al Kibar Reactor: Extraordinary Camouflage, Troubling Implications," Institute for Science and International Security, 12 May 2008, www.isis-online.org; Anthony Cordesman, "An Overview: Syrian Weapons of Mass Destruction," Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2 June 2008, www.csis.org.
[23] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, 19 February 2009, www.iaea.org.
[24] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, 19 February 2009, www.iaea.org.
[25] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, 19 February 2009, www.iaea.org.
[26] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, 19 February 2009, www.iaea.org.
[27] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, GOV/2010/29, 31 May 2010.
[28] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, GOV/2010/29, 31 May 2010.
[29] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General, IAEA, GOV/2011/30, 24 May 2011.
[30] David Albright and Paul Brannan, "Satellite Image Shows Syrian Site Functionally Related to Al Kibar Reactor," ISIS Imagery Brief, Institute for Science and International Security, December 1, 2010; "Nuclear, Syria: Production Capability," Jane's CBRN Assessments, IHS Global Limited, 2015, www.janes.ihs.com; "Nuclear, Syria: Key Facts," Jane's CBRN Assessments, IHS Global Limited, 2015, www.janes.ihs.com.
[31] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, GOV/2011/30, 24 May 2011.
[32] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, GOV/2011/30, 24 May 2011.
[33] "IAEA Briefs U.N. Security Council on Syria Dispute," Global Security Newswire, 15 July 2011.
[34] "Introductory Statement to Board of Governors," IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, 17 November 2011, www.iaea.org; Peter Crail, "Syria Probe Still Stalled, IAEA Says," Arms Control Today, December 2011, www.armscontrol.org.
[35] IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Syrian Arab Republic," Report by the Director General to the Board of Governors, GOV/2013/41, 28 August 2013.
[36] "Al-Kibar Plutonium Production Reactor - Syria," YouTube video, 5:40, Posted by Nuclear Threat Initiative, 6 December 2013, www.youtube.com; Khaled Yacoub Oweis, "Syrian opposition says capture former nuclear site," Reuters, 24 February 2013.
[37] "Nuclear, Syria: Production Capability," Jane's CBRN Assessments, IHS Global Limited, 2015, www.janes.ihs.com.
[38] “Israeli jets hit Syria’s Masyaf chemical site-reports,” BBC, September 7, 2017, www.bbc.com.
[39] Erich Follath, "Assad's Secret: Evidence Points to Syrian Push for Nuclear Weapons," Spiegel Online, 9 January 2015, www.spiegel.de.
[40] "Nuclear, Syria: Key Facts," Jane's CBRN Assessments, IHS Global Limited, 2015, www.janes.ihs.com; "Nuclear, Syria: Proliferation," Jane's CBRN Assessments, IHS Global Limited, 2015, www.janes.ihs.com; David Albright, Sarah Burkhard, Allison Lach, and Frank Pabian, “Is the facility at Qusayr, Syria an underground nuclear facility? Public evidence remains inconclusive,” Institute for Science and International Security, March 21, 2018, www.isis-online.org.
[41] Amos Harel and Aluf Benn, “No Longer a Secret: How Israel Destroyed Syria’s Nuclear Reactor,” Haaretz, March 23, 2018, www.haaretz.com.

Get the Facts on Syria
  • Found in noncompliance with its international safeguards obligations by the IAEA in June 2011
  • Acceded to Chemical Weapons Convention under pressure in 2013, following strong evidence the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against its own people during the ongoing civil war.
  • Received assistance from Russia, China, the DPRK and Iran for its ballistic missile program

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2018.