Contrary to what the Obama administration might hope, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is no reformer. Even with the Syrian government’s murderous crackdown against its unarmed opposition, the White House is not getting the message. Yet Assad’s true colors should have been plainly obvious at least as far back as September 2007, when an Israeli airstrike destroyed the secret Al Kibar nuclear facility near the Syrian town of Deir al Zour. Built with North Korean assistance, Al Kibar was a plutonium-producing reactor that, once completed, could have been used to generate fissile material for nuclear weapons.
Given how Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons has already roiled a region beset by deep rivalries, a widespread—and potentially destructive—race for atomic arms would have likely ensued had Syria successfully followed Iran’s model for nuclear misbehavior. Assad was aware of this fact. Yet he consorted with Pyongyang for years, slowly assembling the pieces required for a nuclear bomb breakout.
Once Assad’s nuclear ambitions were out in the open, he had a chance to come clean. As a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Syria is obliged to make correct and complete declarations of its nuclear material and related activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Instead, the Assad regime adopted the Iranian playbook, obstructing efforts by IAEA inspectors to confirm that Syria conducts no other undeclared nuclear activities.
Nonetheless, in its May 24 report on Syria, the IAEA concluded for the first time that the Al Kibar facility “was very likely a nuclear reactor.” It appears that the IAEA, exasperated by the Assad regime’s stonewalling, may be laying the groundwork for a vote by its 35-nation board of governors to refer Syria’s nuclear case to the U.N. Security Council, just as it did with Iran in 2006.
Under Mohamed ElBaradei’s management, the IAEA refused to move on Syria. Rather than rebuke Damascus for its clandestine program, ElBaradei focused his ire on Israel. The strike on the reactor, he said, violated “the rules of international law.” The Syrians exploited ElBaradei’s anti-Israel rhetoric, and argued that samples of uranium found at Al Kibar were from the munitions Israeli planes dropped on the site. Things are different these days at the IAEA, now run by Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano, but the agency still doesn’t know how far the Syrian nuclear program progressed before the Israeli attack or how much of it still exists.
Washington needs to support the IAEA’s efforts fully. Back in 2007, the Bush administration avoided public condemnation of Syria’s nuclear ambitions for fear of heightening tensions between Syria and Israel. Moreover, there was concern that the potential uproar might also threaten ongoing diplomatic efforts to get the North Koreans to give up parts of their own nuclear program. Then the Obama White House, in its desire to engage Damascus, also downplayed Syria’s nuclear adventurism. Recently, the administration has taken positive steps by sanctioning Assad for human rights abuses. But, by ignoring his dangerous nuclear legacy, the United States and its European allies are missing an opportunity to gain additional leverage.
Washington should support Syria’s referral to the U.N. Security Council and pursue sanctions until the regime reveals the full extent of its nuclear program. More immediately, the White House should also impose, in addition to the human rights sanctions recently put in place, unilateral sanctions on Syria for its illicit nuclear activities. For instance, the Obama administration last year sanctioned several North Korean individuals and companies that assisted Syria’s nuclear, ballistic missile, and advanced conventional weapons programs. However, to date it has declined to sanction the Syrian officials and entities that received North Korean assistance.
In taking such actions, the White House would be acknowledging that Assad is a pillar of instability. U.S. national security and the region itself would be better served with new leadership in Damascus. Otherwise, Washington is sending the message that any criminal regime can slaughter its own people, consort with terrorists, violate international obligations, and pursue nuclear weapons—and face no real consequences. It’s high time to make an example of Assad.
Jamie M. Fly is executive director and Robert Zarate is policy adviser at the Foreign Policy Initiative.