Bit by bit, we're learning more about last month's Israeli air strike against that Syrian nuclear facility. Today's edition of The New York Times reports that Israeli jets targeted an unfinished nuclear reactor. Once completed--and in operation--the reactor's spent fuel could have been reprocessed into material for nuclear weapons.
As the Times notes, there are still many unanswered questions about the facility that was targeted. We don't know the precise location of complex, and there's no word on how far construction had progressed. Additionally, it's unclear how long Damascus had been working on the reactor; the Times account suggests that the Israelis brought it to our attention earlier this year, hinting that our intelligence agencies may have missed early indications of construction activity at the site.
Also unclear is the amount of assistance provided by North Korea and Iran. Both U.S. and Israeli officials say that the Syrian reactor--apparently in the early stages of construction--was based on the North Korean facility at Yongbyon, instrumental in Pyongyang's development of nuclear weapons. The Yongbyon reactor was shut down earlier this year, under the Six Party Accord between North Korea, the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.
However, as former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton observed on Fox News Channel this morning, continued revelations about nuclear ties between Pyongyang and Damascus raise serious questions about continuation of the Six Party talks. The Israeli air strike came only three days after a North Korea ship docked at a Syrian port, reportedly delivering a nuclear-related cargo. Mr. Bolton--and others--have wondered how much of Pyongyang's supposedly "surrendered" nuclear program was merely exported, to Syria and other client states.
We've expressed similar misgivings about the Six Party process, but the Bush Administration appears committed to the deal. Meanwhile, it's a safe bet that U.S. and Israeli intelligence analysts are carefully reviewing current and former images of known (and suspected) Syrian WMD facilities. The same "export" program that led to that reactor construction project almost certainly brought other, related technologies to Assad's Syria. Along with the reactor, it's likely that Damascus is working on other facilities, used to enrich uranium, produce plutonium, fabricate weapons, or simply store nuclear hardware.
In other words, there are other undiscovered elements of Syria's nuclear program. And, unfortunately, those assets are less readily detected, or they can be easily concealed in dual-purpose facilities, such as underground tunnels or even an ordinary warehouse. Work on other aspects of a nuclear program can continue, although destroying (or seriously damaging) the reactor represents a major setback for Damascus. With the reactor on hold--at least for now--the Syrians might well attempt to obtain fissile material from an outside source, allowing them to experiment with uranium enrichment until they can create their own, indigenous method for producing nuclear fuel.
Which brings us to the remnants of North Korea's program, and Iran's own enrichment efforts. Bottom line: the IAF may be visiting Syria again, as other aspects of the program are uncovered. We can only hope the spooks are as adept at spotting other elements of Assad's nuclear puzzle, before it's too late.