The Syria Nukes Narrative


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Demetri Sevastopulo of the Financial Times is one of the best intelligence/national security journalists in the business — and by the tone of this article, “North Korea ‘Helped Syria Build N-Plant‘”, which will appear as the top, front page lead in tomorrow’s FT, he sounds as if he is convinced that the North Koreans were helping Syria to build a nuclear reactor.
Last year, Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times — also one of the best young investigative journalists in town — also ran some pieces that argued this point compellingly. Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker, nuclear proliferation expert Joseph Cirincione, and Arms Control Wonk publisher Jeffrey Lewis have been in the skeptics camp.
I too have been hanging out with the skeptics — but when this bombing raid occurred on 6 September 2007, I was amazed at the pace of flow of what might have been highly classified information from high level Israeli intelligence officials and compartments within the US intelligence community to people like John Bolton.

Bolton was one of the first to begin speaking publicly about the possibility that Israel’s target was a nuclear plant. I was on an Al Jazeera television program with Washington Institute on Near East Policy foreign policy expert Patrick Clawson on the morning of September 14th — and Clawson shared well-developed scenarios of what the Israelis might have done in Syria and why. His narratives were detail rich and obviously derivative of high quality conversations with intelligence insiders.
If this story turns out to be right, then someone somewhere should ask why John Bolton is not being punished for trafficking in secrets that he no doubt got from Cheney’s apparatchiks in government.
But there are many other important questions that policy makers and analysts need to wrestle with if, indeed, the intelligence being shared today with 200 Members of Congress is as slam dunk as some have suggested.
The first question is “Why would Syria do this?” Quick response is that it doesn’t make sense at all — unless the security paranoia of Syria’s political leadership regarding its wrestling match with a technologically superior Israel over Lebanon made it decide to try and build a nuclear weapon.
Syria’s economy and technological base seem quite poorly equipped to sustain a serious nuclear research and development effort. Also, Syria would have to purchase uranium or plutonium from suppliers somewhere in the world — and both are hard to hide, particularly plutonium, which would be preferred for the weapons track. Thus, whether the plant was destroyed today — or at a later time — the acquisition of any plutonium would be the day the plant was, to borrow a recent phrase from Hillary Clinton, “obliterated.”
More fundamentally though, let’s imagine these reports are absolutely true — and Syria was getting North Korea assistance to build a nuclear plant and ultimately a bomb.
This would affect the entire strategic profile of the Middle East — and would really unleash Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey who would not be able to avoid the requirement of also having a warhead program.
If a nation like Syria, emulating North Korea, was trying to acquire the bomb — then it means that the bar for acquisition is far lower than most had believed credible. Israel’s 200 warheads become an important part of the picture as Israel alone enjoys a nuclear, massive retaliation monopoly in the Middle East — and this fact may be driving rival states to decide that they need covertly to acquire nukes to balance Israel’s portfolio.
This is a huge problem, not easily solved.
Jeffrey Lewis and others have argued that the site that was bombed did not provide the space or capacity to capably service a real nuclear reactor. If the videotape that will be shown to Congress shows otherwise, it will be important for other commentators to get access to this material — or at least access to those with access — to see if their assessments stand or whether they flubbed up.
But the mere prospect that lots of small, underdeveloped states may be out to covertly build nukes should scare us all — and we have a real collapse of the nuclear non-proliferation regime that must be addressed first among many other contending priorities.
— Steve Clemons


13 comments on “The Syria Nukes Narrative

  1. Bartolo says:

    “Are we to believe anything these people tell us?”
    This may be one of aWol’s best Norquestian accomplishments; to destroy once and for all any public trust in government, leading the way for the Ayn Rand economy they worship.


  2. DonS says:

    Another link on the Syrian “threat”:
    Any one else beginning to smell deja vu all over? These clowns “running” the government fake, deceive, or stumble the US in the biggest strategic disaster ever, and somehow they are now back again with the same playbook.
    Oh well, have another RC cola and Moon Pie out here in Hicksville (and that’s NOT Hicksville, N.Y) and a good snooze.


  3. erichwwk says:

    Linda writes:
    “Even Reagan almost agreed with Gorbachev in Iceland to get rid of all nuclear weapons.”
    The opposition came “almost” solely from Richard Perle w/ support from what Richard Rhodes calls the “Perle Mafia” created by Cap Weinberger: John Lehman, Fred Ickle, Kenneth Adelman.
    Where it not for Richard Perle, I am convinced we would have the zero nukes both Reagan and Gorbachev sought.
    Also important to realize here (besides all the excellent points Steve C. raises from the SH NY article re plausibility) is the fact that this release came from the WH, and NOT the State Department. To me, this UN type cartoon release says more about the struggle between Cheney and Rice. After all it as Cheney and Powell that have the track record of computer generated “videos”, going back to Gulf war one. This is what Cheney does.
    see eg BBC take on the internal US admin rift:


  4. DonS says:

    Someone in the media (Amanpour) is actually asking the right questions; is the US provoking a crisis with North Korea, with Syria as the excuse.
    I’m sure some policy realists might think that any pressure on North Korea is good. And the necons of course think it is the sworn duty of the US to police everyone’s’ (except the US and Israel) nuclear ambitions.
    But two things: 1) we are no longer in control and 2) we lack the moral credibility of a slug to tell very many to do anything.
    Can we imply from the timing that this is the beginning of the next “crisis”, the one necessary to have before the election?
    How many day/ months/ before Israel takes out an Iranian installation, and the Cheney gang retaliates to the inevitable Iranian response? While St John sings “Bomb, bomb Iran” as loudly as he can; Hillary’s wet dream of “obliterating” Iran comes true with her enthusiastic backing; and Obama just goes along for the ride and not to ruffle AIPAC.
    Wake up Congress! Instead of hosting this charade, attend to the real issues facing this nation. But no. Tough times demand distracting the American people with ginned up foreign crises.
    We get the government we deserve. Hard to believe, but true, that Americans have sunk so low as to allow what we’ve got now.


  5. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Amazing, this latest bit of horseshit comes right on the heels of the NYT’s revelations of just how complicit our media was in feeding us Pentagon fabricated CRAP. And we are to believe anything these people tell us?


  6. Diane Mason says:

    So Dick Cheney, who still thinks Saddam had nukes and snuck them across the border into Syria, also believes that Syria is seeking nuclear know-how from North Korea.
    Shouldn’t someone ask Dick Cheney why Syria, if it really did have Saddam’s nukes, would need Korean help in acquiring nuclear weapons?


  7. DonS says:

    Headlines, at least, say there was no video with smoking gun shown today.
    And, hyperanalytical foreign policy concerns are legitimally raised. As well as the role of the traitorous Bolton.
    Still, with all due respect, do you really want me to believe this dog and pony show after Colin Powell’s fetid “misrepresentation” to the UN?
    The damage that has been done to the credibility of anything presented through “official channels” is amazing.
    Sadly, the memory of the public is not long. Thirty years after Watergate we have Watergate on steroids in this OPENLY (we need italics capabiltity Steve) defiant fascist bunch. Let’s not ever skip over the atrocities as the preface towards sanity.


  8. lance peeples says:

    The Congress is just now getting a “secret” briefing on this, but how does this jive with the Israelis conducting the strike?
    Did the US share the info and direct their actions like a puppet master?
    Did the Israelis uncover this and relay it to the US and took the bombing initiative on their own?


  9. jon says:

    Most likely, the administration wants to divert attention from
    Jimmy Carter’s trip. Not like the media has been all over it.
    Contrasted to the State Department, Carter seems to have
    engaged in a little actual diplomacy, and has several new
    directions and offerings that should be followed up.
    Bush & Rice seem invested in a slow walk to nowhere, that
    essentially gives a pass to Israeli expansion of settlements and
    selective assassination and random incursions and destruction in
    the West bank and Gaza. They’re probably still doing daily
    overflights of Lebanon too, but who can be bothered to care
    about that?
    I’ve read some interesting pieces that suggest that the Israeli
    bombing of the Syrian building was a proxy to telegraph to the
    Iranians what was to come, and to gain intelligence on shared air
    defense systems. It may also have served to buck up domestic
    Israeli morale in the aftermath of Hezbollah’s handing them their
    asses a year prior.
    Maybe Syria has some actual nuclear pretensions. Good luck to
    them. Perhaps we might be a bit more concerned about the
    actuality of Israel’s nuclear facilities and nuclear weapon
    Once upon a time there was an initiative for a nuclear free
    Middle east. Only the US and Israel opposed it. Heckuva a job
    there guys.


  10. Linda says:

    I just visited both Clinton and Obama campaign’s websites to reread their issues statements. Clinton only has one on ending the Iraq war. Obama has a foreign relations section with 8 topics, one of which is ending the war in Iraq and another is dealing with nuclear proliferation That’s why he has support of Sam Nunn and Susan Eisenhower. McCain is singing “Bomb, bomb Iran” and Clinton is talking tough about our ability to “obliterate” Iran, neither of which show much thought or understanding of the challenges the world faces.
    Even Reagan almost agreed with Gorbachev in Iceland to get rid of all nuclear weapons.


  11. questions says:

    Here’s where we can see the real dangers of The Administration That Cried Nukes…. We don’t trust the government (aluminum tubes, WMDs in Iraq, and the like) and if ever the government actually tells the truth we won’t know, we can’t know.
    We really can’t afford a foreign/economic policy that holds every non-nuclear nation in thrall to us. The stakes are too high for them to want no nukes, and too high for us if they have nukes. If we can play rational choice games for a sec, the thing to do is to change the nature of the game such that there is no rational incentive for other countries’ getting nukes. This policy would be better than one that advocates coming up with bigger and bigger hammers with which to bang the nuclear powers into submission. Escalation dominance should have died with the Cold War. And encouraging the failure of states should have died as we have watched the collapse of Iraq. Yet we play the same games again and again.
    So whether or not Syria has nuclear fantasies is almost beside the point. We must alter foreign/economic policies to encourage the psychic and physical health of other nations.


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