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Syria Plays Cat and Mouse

2:34 PM, Jun 7, 2011 • By ROBERT ZARATE
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Does Syria’s recent offer of transparency to the world’s atomic watchdog represent a change of heart, or is it simply a tactic meant to prevent (or delay) punishment for its nuclear transgressions?  History tells us that it’s likely the latter.

Assad Bashar

On June 1, the Assad regime sent a confidential letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in which it promises “to fully cooperate” with agency inspectors.  The letter comes as Western countries are now pushing for the IAEA’s 35-nation governing board to find Syria in “non-compliance” with its international nuclear obligations and to send the rogue nation to the U.N. Security Council. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is already facing widespread condemnation for its lethal crackdown on unarmed protestors and other egregious human rights violations. 

For nearly three years, Damascus has stonewalled IAEA investigations into Syria’s controversial nuclear program—in particular, into the secretly built Al Kibar facility near the town of Dair Alzour, which an Israeli airstrike destroyed in September 2007.  Eight months after the Israeli airstrike, the U.S intelligence community made the unusual move of quietly—but publicly—confirming that the Al Kibar facility housed a nuclear reactor and that it had apparently been built with North Korea’s help.   

Syria’s letter follows the IAEA’s surprise move last month, when it offered a candid assessment that the Al Kibar facility “very likely” housed a nuclear reactor. Under its international agreement with the IAEA, Syria was obligated to declare the existence of that reactor. Had that secret reactor not been destroyed, the Assad regime could have used it to generate fissile material for a nuclear bomb.

What’s troubling about the Assad regime’s three years of nuclear secrecy is that it has kept international inspectors from knowing not only how far the controversial nuclear program progressed prior to Israel’s airstrike, but also whether aspects of that program still exist today.  In meetings this week in Vienna, the IAEA’s Board of Governors is scheduled to take up Syria’s nuclear file. But it remains to be seen whether the Assad regime’s last-minute letter to the Agency—a ploy right out of the Iranian playbook—will succeed in dividing the IAEA governing board and delaying Syria’s long overdue referral to the U.N. Security Council for further international sanctions. 

Here’s the text of Syria’s confidential June 1st letter to the IAEA director general Yukiya Amano:

Dear Mr. Amano,

With reference to your request to engage with the Agency on [the] Dair Alzour site which was attacked and destroyed by Israel in 2007, and although the Agency’s requests are beyond our Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement; but in the spirit of our continuous and productive cooperation with the Agency, particularly after fulfilling [the] September [2010] Action Plan; I would like to inform you that we are ready to fully cooperate with the Agency to resolve related outstanding issues to remove this item from the Board of Governors Agenda.

Accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.

Ibrahim Othman
Director General
Atomic Energy Commission of Syria

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