Is Syria a Candidate for Nuclear Proliferation?

Is Syria a Candidate for Nuclear Proliferation?

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Tariq Khaitous

Postdoctoral Fellow, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Syria's Nuclear Ambitions-Cause for Concern

Over the past decade, there has been concern in the international community that Syria would develop a secret nuclear program. These concerns were heightened after allegations of a Syria-North Korea nuclear collaboration, which was followed by an Israeli air incursion in September 2007. Israeli officials allege that North Korea was secretly assisting Syria in the development of a military nuclear program. [1] Syria and North Korea both denied these reports. Syrian officials accused Israel of using the claim as a pretext for violating Syria's airspace. Syrian newspapers reported, "[The allegations] recall those false claims that the Americans and the British circulated about Iraq's nuclear programs." [2] The North Korean foreign ministry condemned the accusations as "unskillful conspiracy" and "groundless." [3]

So far, there is inadequate evidence to conclusively prove that Syria is pursuing a secret nuclear program, with or without Pyongyang's assistance. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) addressed the lack of evidence in a January 2008 interview in the newspaper Al Hayat, where IAEA Director Dr. Mohammed El Baradei stated, "So far, we have not received any information about any nuclear programs in Syria." [4]

Syria has been a member of the International Agency Energy Atomic (IAEA) since 1963. In 1969, it ratified the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear state. Syria has one nuclear research reactor at Deir el-Hajjar not far from Damascus. It is a 30kW miniature neutron source reactor that was built by China in 1991. [5] Since it became operational in 1996, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has periodically inspected the reactor. [6] Syria has never conducted uranium enrichment activities. Since 2003, Damascus has been seeking nuclear partnerships, particularly with Russia, to acquire research reactors and desalination plants. However, no official agreement has been reached.

Even if Syria's nuclear capabilities are limited and restricted to civilian use, Syria's ability to pursue a military nuclear program remains within reach. The West considers Syria's nuclear activities a cause for significant concern, especially taking into account the fact that for some time Syria has had the expertise and capacity to develop a chemical weapons program. [7] A recent satellite image shows that Syria is undertaking new construction on the site bombed by Israel. Press reports state that the new building is similar in design to the suspected nuclear reactor that was destroyed by Israel. [8] Syrian officials denied these interpretations of the satellite image and insisted that the site is a military base. [9] When asked whether the site contained a nuclear reactor or not, Dr. El Baradei said, "The IAEA wanted to inspect the site but the Syrian brothers refused." [10]

The Syrian attitudes towards nuclear weapons and possible motivations for pursuing nuclear weapons must be understood in terms of the broader security situation in the Middle East. Due to Syria's close ties to with Iran and North Korea, and its historically adversarial relationship with Israel, it is viewed as a potential candidate for nuclear proliferation. Its military relationships with Iran and North Korea could play a part in its decision to pursue a nuclear weapons program that would counter perceived threats from Israel and the United States.

Syria's Potential Motivations for Developing Nuclear Weapons

There are several reasons why Syria would develop nuclear weapons. Its primary reason is its perception that Israel poses a military threat. The main motivation for Syria to develop nuclear weapons is the Israeli nuclear arsenal. Syria insists that Israel's nuclear program is a security threat. [11] The inability of the United Nations (UN) to force Israel to join the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear state only increases Syria's frustration. The Syrian government has consistently denounced Israel, as its nuclear facilities are the only ones in the region that are not under IAEA control. Syrian Chief of Staff General Hihmet Al-Siabi expressed his concerns over Israel's nuclear weapons stating, "Syria would strive to achieve strategic equality with Israel including nuclear parity." [12] Damascus, like other Arab capitals, believes that Israel's nuclear program is instigating an arms race that undermines peace and security in the region.

This adds to Syria's view of Israel as a threat that is the result of Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights since the War of 1967. This is one of the most persistent disputes between Syria and Israel. The negotiations between the two countries remain deadlocked. Syria wants Israel to withdraw completely from the Golan Heights without any conditions. At best, Israel would accept a partial withdrawal. The two parties also disagree on how to achieve the withdrawal due to a disagreement over territorial borders defined in the past. [13] Moreover, the countries diverge on how to restart the negotiations. Israel suggested beginning a new set of negotiations without pre-conditions. Syria has insisted that negotiations restart based on negotiations in 2000. These were the last Israeli-Syrian discussions and were followed by the collapse of the peace talks led by the United States. During the November 2007 Israeli-Arab summit in Annapolis, Maryland, Syria wanted to raise the issue again. It was able to pressure the participating states to put the Golan Heights on the table for negotiations. However, it did not achieve the collective support it was expecting, and it failed to re-open negotiations with Israel.

On a broader regional strategic level, Syria is also concerned over the current security environment in the Middle East. Since the invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces, Damascus has felt itself in a vulnerable position, as U.S. troops are now at Syria's doorstep, in Iraq and Turkey. Syrian officials fear that their country could be a future target of U.S. aggression, and are concerned about the regime change agenda of the United States being applied to the Assad regime. On March 1, 2003, a few days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, President Assad expressed his concerns over the increasing U.S presence in the region. In an emergency speech addressed to the members of the Arab League, the Syrian leader said, "We are all targeted […]. We are all in danger." [14]

Friction with the United States over Lebanon has also increased Syria's threat perceptions. Since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri, Syria has been under pressure from the United States to be transparent and cooperate fully with the UN investigation into the assassination. Washington is working closely with the other members of the Security Council to set up a tribunal to try the suspected killers. [15] Washington is also concerned over Syria's passive role in allowing foreign fighters to infiltrate Iraq via Syria's borders. These foreign fighters then join extremist groups in Iraq. In addition, United States has long denounced the support that Syria provides to Hezbollah and Hamas.

Finally, there is deterioration of the relationships between Syria and Arab states in the region due to Syria's alliance with Iran, its involvement in Lebanon, and its support for Hezbollah. These factors have weakened ties between Syria and the other Sunni Arab regimes. If the major Arab states of the region, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, pursue nuclear programs in order to counter a future nuclear Iran, it is possible that Syria would seek to do the same, not necessarily to support its strategic ally Iran, but to strengthen its own defense capacities in a volatile region.

Allegations of Nuclear Weapons Activity

In recent years there have been numerous revelations regarding the nuclear smuggling network run by Dr. A.Q. Khan, but questions remain over the extent of his dealings with various recipient states. Press releases in 2004 reported that Khan's network might be involved in sensitive nuclear activities in Syria, Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Former United States Undersecretary of State John Bolton referred to Syria when he said that the Khan Network had "several other" customers who may want the bomb. [16] In the summer of 2004, Middle East newspapers reported that U.S. intelligence agencies had proof that the Khan network sold Syria nuclear technology and components of Pakistani centrifuges that could be used for military programs. [17] However, IAEA Director Dr. Mohamed El Baradei dismissed the allegations. He reported that there were no connections between Khan's network and Syria. Dr. El Baradei said, "No country had provided any hard evidence that would implicate Syria as a customer in the black market set up by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's atomic weapons program […]. This is something I read in the paper. Nobody came to us with any information [about Syria]." [18]

Although Syria is party to the NPT, and has called several times for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, it has long been cited as a potential candidate for nuclear proliferation. [19] In 1979, Syria was accused of developing a secret nuclear program for military purposes and of not being transparent with the IAEA regarding the extent of its nuclear activities. Syria denied the accusations and declared that its nuclear policy was oriented for peaceful research rather than military purposes. Nevertheless the United States and Israel have consistently expressed skepticism over such assertions by Damascus, and the two countries have opposed all sales of nuclear technology to Syria that might be used in the development of a nuclear weapons program. [20]

North Korean Ties

The most recent incident surrounding Syria's suspected nuclear program was the reported Israeli air incursion into Syria in September 2007. Neither Syria nor Israel has been forthcoming about the exact nature of the incident. Some media sources claim that the target was actually a military stockpile of weapons that was supposed to be delivered to Hezbollah. Others described it as a training base for Palestinian militants. However, the report causing the most concern was that the target was a nuclear reactor that Syria was using to develop a secret nuclear program with the support of North Korea. North Korea has called the allegation "preposterous misinformation." [21] Nonetheless, Syria has had a long military relationship with North Korea, and has cooperated with it on its ballistic missile program and purchased launchers and components. Immediately after the Israeli attack, the Syrian regime attempted to mitigate rumors about its nuclear activities. It invited international journalists to observe that there was neither a military base at Deir ez-Zor nor presence of nuclear materials. Mehdi Ahmed, director of the Deir ez Zor Center, who was guiding the tour of the journalists said, "You see, around us are farmers, corn, produce, nothing else […]. The allegations are completely groundless, and I don't really understand where all this WMD (weapons of mass destruction) talk came from," [22] However, no one was allowed to access the bombed site. The journalists reported that the area was a sleepy Bedouin city but no real evidence proved that the target was a nuclear reactor.

Israeli Concerns

Israel realizes that Syria is not a nuclear threat for now, since its nuclear capacity is not sufficient to build a nuclear weapon. However, the goal of the air incursion was most likely related to the Iranian crisis, given Israel's deep concern over Iran's nuclear intentions. Despite the recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that declared that Iran gave up its nuclear weapons program in 2003, it appears that Israel may launch a pre-emptive attack if Iran refuses to halt its nuclear program. During a parliamentary meeting on January 18, 2008, Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Ulmert said that, "Israel clearly will not reconcile itself to a nuclear Iran […]. All options that prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities are legitimate within the context of how to grapple with this matter." [23] Therefore, the attack was a message not only to Syria, but also to Iran, that if Israel could attack Syria's nuclear site, Iran's nuclear facilities could also be targeted. Israel thus wants to show other Middle Eastern states that it is able to take unilateral measures to strike any other suspicious nuclear installations in the region. [24] However, Iranian officials demonstrated that they do not consider the raid as an indicator of Israeli capacity and willingness to strike Iran. During the annual meeting of the Inter-parliamentary Union (IPU) in Geneva, Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Hadad Alel said, "The violation of the airspace of Syria by Israeli planes was not meant to be a signal for Iran, because Israel is not in a position to have the illusion of attacking Iran." [25]

At the same time IAEA Director, Dr. Mohammed El Baradei denounced the Israeli attack as undermining the Agency's global atomic work. He said, "Israel took the law into her own hands and that, neither the U.S. nor Israel provided evidence that the site was a secret nuclear installation." He regretted the Israeli action and added, "If a country has information that another country is developing a secret nuclear program, the IAEA should be contacted because we have the power to investigate the issue." [26]

The Israeli aggression was also aimed to reinforce Israel's military deterrence in the region. After the Israeli-Lebanon war of 2006, Syria and Iran welcomed the harsh resistance of Hezbollah against the Israeli army and claimed that Israel was defeated. Hezbollah had shown that its militants were able to penetrate Israeli territories when it killed eight soldiers and kidnapped two others. They also prove themselves to be a strong force when faced with the most well equipped army in the region. Iran and Syria view Israel's 2007 air strike as an attempt to restore the credibility of its conventional forces after the stalemate with Hezbollah. Syrian foreign minister Farouq Al Shara said, "The raid was aimed at boosting the morale of the Israel Defense Forces in the wake of the Second Lebanon War." [27]

Syrian news sources also voiced opinions on the goal of the raid. One newspaper, Al Asr, said "[The aim was] to frighten Syria, make it feel the sentiment of war, push it to break its alliance with Iran, stop its support to Hezbollah and the Palestinian resistance, force it to sign a 'free' peace agreement with Israel without full withdraw from the Golan Heights and to prevent the voluntary militants to cross its borders to join the resistance in Iraq." [28]

However, Israel's officials denied the comments in the press and media. They insisted that the incursion aimed to destroy a Syrian nuclear reactor that was secretly assembled with the assistance of North Korea, without giving any proof of existence of a reactor. [29]

The Iranian Connection

Concerns have also been expressed in the West over any Iranian involvement in Syrian nuclear activities. According to London-based Jane's Defense Weekly, Iran and Syria "signed a strategic accord meant to protect either country from international pressure regarding their weapons programs." [30] It added that some Syrian diplomatic sources said that Syria agreed to hide Iranian weapons materials in the event that Iran was subject to military aggression or UN sanctions. Under the accord, Syria would continue to support the Lebanese Hezbollah with weapons and logistics. Iran had always provided military support to the Shiite movement. About 15,000 Iranian missiles were delivered by Syria to Hezbollah. During its war against Israel in July 2006, Hezbollah militants launched more than 3,000 rockets into Northern Israel. The intension of the accord is also to strengthen the Iranian-Syrian alliance and challenge economic sanctions that may eventually be imposed by the West. Jane's also reported that Iran would help Syria financially to resist UN sanctions imposed after the assassination of Hariri.

Furthermore, Iran also admitted to supporting the Syrian military with the technology needed to develop WMD, as well as conventional arms, training, and logistics. Iran will also help Syria develop its ballistic missiles and chemical weapons capabilities. Jane's reported that under the same accord, Iran will take the opportunity to test "advanced weapon systems in Syria during a military confrontation."

At the same time, in June 2007, the official Iranian state news agency (IRNA) reported that President Assad called Tehran to establish "better cooperation" in "the confrontation with the Zionist regime and the USA." [31] During the most recent visit of President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad to Damascus in January 2008, President Assad renewed his support for Iran's nuclear program. When asked of his opinion towards Iran's ambitions, he said, "Those countries which oppose Iran's right to gain peaceful nuclear technology have no convincing and logical reason… Clearing the region from mass destruction weapons should first start from Israel because it is the only country in the Middle East which owns nuclear weapons." [32]

With this strategic alliance that seems to have acquired a nuclear dimension, the Iranian regime appears to be including Syria in its nuclear plans to bolster Tehran's position in the Middle East. In turn, Syria would gain from Iranian nuclear expertise. This alliance will also help Iran divert international attention away from its nuclear aims and gain more time to proceed with its nuclear program. It would also put the United States in a difficult situation given the multiple fronts of violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Palestine.


Even if Damascus is considered a potential candidate for nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, Syria's current nuclear capacity indicates that it is focusing its nuclear energy primarily on civilian research. At present Syria does not seem to have the capability for clandestine nuclear activities. It has neither the financial capacity nor the required infrastructure to develop a nuclear device. Furthermore, the Assad regime's most immediate concerns are UN investigations and Resolution 1757 of the Security Council that established a Special Tribunal to investigate the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri. Embarking on any sort of suspicious nuclear activities would have a major impact on non proliferation efforts in the Middle East. It would also be a great rationale for the United States to seek regime change in Syria.

Thus, calculations of the broader security environment in the Middle East are an integral part of nuclear decision-making of the leadership in Damascus. Several factors impact the direction Syria takes with respect to its nuclear ambitions. These include maintaining good relations with other major regional powers such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Finally, it is unclear whether Iranian-Syrian cooperation will actually extend to Iran defending Syria militarily in the event of an attack. The role of Iran's relations with Syria will continue to be a major contributing factor should Syria ever decide to pursue a nuclear weapons capability.


[1] "Israel Sadarat Mou3idat Nawawiya korea fi ghara ala Souria," [Israel struck North Korean nuclear material during a raid on Syria,] Al Waqt, September 8, 2007,
[2] "Syria, N Korea deny nuclear cooperation, accuse U.S. officials of spreading accusations," International Herald Tribune, September 18, 2007,
[3] "N Korea denies Syria nuclear ties", BBC News, September 18, 2007,
[4] "Mohamed Al Baradei fi hiwar ma3a Al Hayat," [Mohamed Al Baradei's interview with Al-Hayat newspaper,] Al Moltaka Al Fathawi, January 7, 2008,
[5] "Syria profile," NTI website, November 2007,
[6] Richard Weitz, "Israeli Airstrike in Syria: International Reactions," James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, November 1, 2007,
[7] Zuhair Diab, "Syria's Chemical and Biological Weapons: Asserting Capabilities and Motivations," The Nonproliferation Review, Fall 1997,
[8] Randall Mikkelsen, "Syria rebuilding at site bombed by Israel- report," Reuters, January 14, 2008,
[9] William J. Broad, "Syria Rebuilds on Site Destroyed by Israel Bombs," The New York Times, January 12, 2008,
[10] "Mohamed Al Baradei fi hiwar ma3a Al Hayat."
[11] Staff Writers, "Egypt, Syria press for IAEA resolution against Israel," Space War, September 19, 2007,
[12] Robert Marginnis, "Syria-North Korea Nuclear Nexus," Human Events, November 2, 2007,
[13] "Syria: U.S. Relations and Bilateral Issues," CRS Report for Congress, Updated September 19, 2007,
[14] Robert Dreyfuss, "Syria In Their Sights," The American Conservative, January 16, 2006,
[15] "Keep the Pressure on Syria, U.S. Ambassador Bolton Says,", December 13, 2005.
[16] "Syria's Secret Nuclear Threat," Assyrian International News Agency, January 4, 2007,
[17] Ibid.
[18] "Baradei: No Evidence to Khan Link to Syria 2004," Syrian Comment, September 14, 2007,
[19] "Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), Syria,", September 2007,
[20] Saoud Ben Abdellah Al Mouaikili, "Tamakhadat Alat Addi'aya Assahyounia Fawalladat Moufa'ilan Nawawiyan Sourian," [Zionist propaganda produced a Syrian nuclear reactor] Al Asr Journal, September 24, 2007,
[21] Peter Crail, "NK-Syria Nuclear Connection Questionable," Arms Control Today, October 2007,
[22] Hugh Naylor, "Syria Tells Journalists Israeli Raid Did Not Occur," The New York Time, October 11, 2007,
[23] "All options legitimate to block a nuclear-armed Iran, Olmert says," International Herald Tribune, January 14, 2008,
[24] Hene R. Prucher, "Israel sends Middle East a message with Syrian Airstrike," The Christian Science Monitor, September 19, 2007,
[25] "Israel's Syria strike not signal for Iran: parliamentary speaker," Space War, October 9, 2007,
[26] "Baradei: Al Wakala Ddawlya litta9ka wahdaha 9kadira 3ala tta'akod ida kanet dimach9k totawiro barnamajan nawawiyan", [Baradei: The International Agency of Energy is the only body capable to identify weather or not Syria is pursuing a nuclear program], Radiosawa, October 29, 2007,
[27] "Syria: Israel is spreading false reports in order to justify war,", September 30, 2007.
[28] Saoud Ben Abdellah Al Mouaikili
[29] Seymour M. Hersch, "What did Israel bomb in Syria," The New Yorker, February 11, 2008,
[30] "Report: Syria agrees to hide Iran weapons," World Tribune, December 20, 2005,; Robin Hughes, "Iran, Syria sign a further defense co-operation agreement," Jane's, June 27, 2007,
[31] Aaron Klein, "Report: Olmert offers Golan Heights to Syria,", June 8, 2007.
[32] "Ahmadinejad stresses important role of Iran, Syria in region," IRNA, January 19, 2008,

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