Less that two months after an Israeli air raid on a suspected Syrian nuclear facility, the Damascus government has apparently completed a hurried clean-up of the site, removing remnants of a large building that may have housed a partially-built nuclear reactor.
Today's edition of The New York Times, using satellite imagery from two commercial firms, indicates that Syria rushed to dismantle the facility after the Israeli airstrike. An image from Digital Globe, obtained on 24 October, shows all traces of the building have been removed, and the ground appears smooth and undisturbed. A similar photo, taken on 10 August, showed a tall, square-shaped structure on the site. Analysts estimate that the building measured 150 feet on a side, providing up to 22,500 feet of floor space.
Experts interviewed by the Times were stunned at the pace of Syrian clean-up efforts.
“It’s a magic act — here today, gone tomorrow,” said a senior intelligence official. “It doesn’t lower suspicions; it raises them. This was not the long-term decommissioning of a building, which can take a year. It was speedy. It’s incredible that they could have gone to that effort to make something go away.”
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that this week released a report on the Syrian site, said Thursday that the building’s removal was inherently suspicious.
“It looks like Syria is trying to hide something and destroy the evidence of some activity,” Mr. Albright, a former United Nations weapons inspector, said in an interview. “But it won’t work. Syria has got to answer questions about what it was doing.”
“It’s clearly very suspicious,” said Joseph Cirincione, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “The Syrians were up to something that they clearly didn’t want the world to know about.”
Publicly, U.S. officials have refused to confirm that the site imaged by the commercial firms is the same one struck by Israeli jets on 6 September. But privately, a senior intelligence official told the Times that was, indeed the same location.
Obviously, you don't need to be an imagery analyst to understand that Damascus was in a hurry to get rid of whatever was left after the Israeli airstrike. The unnamed intelligence official is quite correct in describing the clean-up as "speedy" and "incredible." Syria apparently spared no effort--or expense--in attempting to cleanse the site, a process that normally takes months to complete.
The motivation for the clean-up job is clear: under an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Damascus is obligated to report on its nuclear plans and development efforts. And, like a blind-and-deaf bloodhound with a bad nose, the IAEA has finally caught wind of the Syrian program, and is making noises about accountability and possible inspections.
But it's a safe bet that the dismantled facility near the Euphrates River was never reported to the agency, and Damascus will stall inspection requests for as long as possible. And--assuming they gain access to the site--inspectors will find it difficult to figure out what was actually there, thanks to the Syrian clean-up job. Damascus understands that the IAEA has a poor record in detecting covert nuclear programs, and the reported dirt work is, quite literally, an attempt by the Assad government to cover its tracks.
Still, the sanitization effort at that Syrian facility does offer potential insights on nuclear cooperation between rogue states, and the ability of the U.S. intelligence community to gather vast quantities of information, in an attempt to monitor WMD programs.
On the cooperation issue, it has been widely reported that the Syrian "reactor" was based on a North Korean design, and technicians from the DPRK may have been killed in the Israeli airstrike. But the clean-up may also provide additional indications of Iranian involvement in the project. The hasty--but effective--clean-up is reminiscent of a similar effort in Tehran a few years ago.
When Iranian dissidents identified a building at a Tehran university as a nuclear R&D center, the complex was quickly demolished, despite a recently-completed expansion. Workers removed all traces of the building in a matter of weeks, and the ground was scraped by bulldozers and earth-movers. The Iranian demolition job was smaller than the one observed in Syria, but it followed the same pattern. We can only wonder if Iran--which is probably financing the Syrian project--also provided expertise in getting rid of the facility once it had been detected and bombed.
In terms of following activity at the site, readers may note the two-month "gap" between the before and after images provided to the Times. While commercial platforms don't image targets as often as classified spy satellites, they make frequent passes over high-interest areas, including Syria.
So, what happened to all those images of the nuclear facility between 10 August and 24 October? They were (most likely) snapped up by the U.S. intelligence community, which has huge contracts with commercial imagery providers, using their products to supplement their own satellite images. After learning of the Israeli airstrike, the spooks moved quickly to buy up available imagery of the target area, denying it to other customers, including media outlets.
That move was prompted by two considerations; first, getting all available information to make required assessments, and secondly, to allow the U.S. (and its allies) to manage speculation and spin on the raid. As two members of Congress noted in a recent WSJ op-ed, the Bush Administration has "thrown a veil of secrecy" over the airstrike and its target, offering briefings to only a handful of law-makers. At the same time, there have also been comments about how raid "narrowly avoided World War III." In that context, it's little wonder that you can't satellite images of the Syrian facility in the weeks just before--and after--the Israeli attack.