Home inFocus Can Syria Change? (Spring 2009) The Attack on Syria’s al-Kibar Nuclear Facility

The Attack on Syria’s al-Kibar Nuclear Facility

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Joshua D. Goodman Spring 2009

Israel’s September 6, 2007, attack on Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear facility surprised the world—Syria most of all. The operation, executed by the Israeli Air Force (IAF), was reminiscent of Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor, but with two noticeable differences. First, Israel remained silent following the al-Kibar bombing, while in 1981 it boasted publicly about the Iraq strike even before the pilots had returned. Second, whereas the international community knew of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear plans in 1981, few were aware of the extent of Syria’s nuclear program in 2007.

The IAF’s attack raises two important questions: What was Syria hiding? Why did Israel feel compelled to launch a military strike? Subsequent investigations have painted a clearer picture of what took place at al-Kibar.

Early Indicators

In hindsight, there were several warnings in recent years that Syria might be pursuing nuclear weapons. The December 2001 National Intelligence Estimate, focusing on foreign missile development, noted the U.S. intelligence community’s concerns about “Syria’s intentions regarding nuclear weapons.” An unclassified 2004 report by the Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis stated that Pakistani investigators had confirmed that Abdul Qadeer Khan—the Pakistani nuclear scientist who ran a clandestine black market network—offered “nuclear technology and hardware to Syria.” The report expressed concern “that expertise or technology could have been transferred.”

Press reports also began to circulate in 2004 that Khan had visited Syria on several occasions, and had met with senior Syrian officials in Iran. While Syria denied this, Bashar al-Assad acknowledged in a 2007 interview with an Austrian newspaper that he had received a letter from Khan in 2001. He claimed that he rebuffed the overture, unsure “if it was an Israeli trap.”

Still, a generalized assessment of Syria’s nuclear intentions could not be gleaned from these early warnings. Indeed, Western intelligence agencies were unaware of the purpose of the al-Kibar facility until the summer of 2007. According to an ABC News report, Israel’s Mossad learned that Syria was building a covert nuclear facility that summer, and proceeded to either place a mole inside the plant or convince a worker to provide Israel with intelligence. Through this source, Israel obtained important video footage, as well as photographs, providing evidence that al-Kibar was indeed a nuclear facility (with a large cylindrical structure, a pumping station, etc).

Israel approached the Central Intelligence Agency with this evidence, and, according to the Jerusalem Post, the U.S. “looked up satellite coordinates for the site” and “helped Israel pinpoint possible ‘drop sites’.” The two countries discussed the possibility of the U.S. carrying out the strike; American officials even examined options for doing so. Eventually, the White House conveyed the message “that the U.S. preferred not to attack.” In fact, “U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates attempted to convince Israel ‘to confront, not attack’.”

What Was Syria Hiding?

Syria’s response in the wake of Israel’s bombing was curious. The regime sought no retaliatory measures. It did not even ask the U.N. Security Council to discuss or condemn the incident. Rather, satellite photos show Syria’s efforts to scrub the site of any traces of the nuclear reactor that Syria denied having. Reuters reported that Syria bulldozed the area, “removed debris and erected a new building in a possible cover-up.” Former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright, president of the prestigious Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), told the New York Times, “It looks like Syria is trying to hide something and destroy the evidence of some activity. But it won’t work. Syria has got to answer questions about what it was doing.”

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director Mohammed ElBaradei condemned the U.S. and Israel for their “shoot first and ask questions later” approach. Nonetheless, the IAEA began probing Syrian nuclear activity, and Syria gave its inspectors access to the al-Kibar site in June 2008. (Syria later refused IAEA requests to revisit al-Kibar and examine three other related sites.)

The IAEA released a report on November 19, 2008, containing a number of relevant data points. The report establishes that construction of the al-Kibar facility began between April 26 and August 4, 2001. Based on analysis of satellite imagery, the IAEA also notes:

Imagery taken prior to and immediately after the bombing indicates that the destroyed box-shaped building may have had underground levels. Its containment structure appears to have been similar in dimension and layout to that required for a biological shield for nuclear reactors, and the overall size of the building was sufficient to house the equipment needed for a nuclear reactor of the type alleged.

The IAEA’s on-the-ground evaluation also found a water pump and other adequate infrastructure to support a reactor. Environmental samples from the site also yielded a “significant number of natural uranium particles” that were of anthropogenic origin. (Syria claimed that the particles came from the missiles Israel used to destroy the facility.)

Consistent with the caution for which the IAEA is known, its report did not conclusively state that the Syrian site was a nuclear reactor—but the implication was strong.

North Korea’s Connection

Post-attack analysis also highlighted North Korea’s connection to al-Kibar. Shortly after Israel’s strike, press reports suggested that the characteristics of the Syrian facility were similar to North Korea’s reactor in Yongbyon. David Albright and Paul Brannan of ISIS confirmed this in April 2008. Specifically, they “measured the footprint of the Yongbyon reactor building and compared it to that of the suspected reactor building in Syria and found the two footprints were approximately the same.” Prior to Syria’s construction of al-Kibar, the Yongbyon model had been the only one of its type built in 35 years.

Video from inside the Syrian facility has also been described as “very, very damning” by a nuclear weapons specialist who spoke to the Washington Post. The video demonstrates that al-Kibar’s core design was the same as the Yongbyon reactor, “including a virtually identical configuration and number of holes for fuel rods.” The video also shows North Korean personnel inside the site.

Subsequent investigations have revealed that key materials for al-Kibar were smuggled from China and possibly Europe into Syria by Namchongang Trading, a North Korean firm.

Why Did Israel Attack?

There are several explanations for why Israel elected to launch a strike against the Syrian facility. The most obvious is that Israel feared the prospect of having a nuclear neighbor—particularly one with which Israel has been in a constant state of war since the Jewish state’s independence in 1948. The two countries have clashed several times since the 1973 Yom Kippur war, including a major engagement in the 1982 Lebanon war and occasional skirmishes at their shared border. Moreover, Syria threatens Israel by proxy—through its support of such terrorist groups as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

A second possible motivation is Israel’s desire to re-establish deterrence in the Arab world. Israel’s failures in its 2006 war with Hezbollah weakened the perceived deterrent that it held over its neighbors. The al-Kibar strike may have been an attempt to reestablish the supremacy of Israel’s military apparatus in its enemies’ eyes. Christopher Pang, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told the Associated Press, “In terms of deterrence, the effect was clear by invading Syrian airspace, by showing that Israel is not only able, but willing, to still launch strikes against Syrian targets.”

The IAF’s strike may also have been intended as a warning to Iran—or even a practice run on an eventual bombing raid on Iranian nuclear facilities. Obviously, al-Kibar differed greatly from the primary nuclear targets in Iran. Indeed, al-Kibar was at least partially located above ground, and was within Israeli warplanes’ striking range. Nonetheless, al-Kibar was protected by the same Russian-built Tor-M1 air defense system used to protect Iranian facilities. Thus, Israel’s strike may have been a test run to find flaws in Iran’s air defenses.

If indeed Israel’s strategy was to diagnose Iran’s air defense weaknesses, the strategy appeared to backfire. The apparent failure of these systems prompted Iran in December 2007 to purchase the more advanced S-300 system from Russia. (Both Russia and Iran insist the deal had been in the works well before then.)

In the end, however, the Israeli operation seems to have been motivated by necessity; the pictures collected by Israel’s mole depicted a nearly complete facility. Albright and Brannan argue that the late detection of the reactor, coupled with the perception of a nearly operational facility, compelled Israel to choose the military option as a measure of first resort. They write that Israel’s “analysis, which in hindsight must be viewed as a worst-case assessment, was that Syria could soon load uranium fuel and start the reactor.” Israel did not want to attack after the reactor was fully operational, because doing so would run the risk of spreading radioactive material.

A Warning For The Future

As primary energy grows more expensive, many countries are turning to nuclear power. The expansion of “civilian nuclear programs” highlights the need for a more robust non-proliferation regime; the Middle East alone has about a dozen states with at least nascent nuclear programs. The existence of al-Kibar, however fleeting, should serve as a serious warning about the current non-proliferation regime, as well as U.S. engagement of Syria.

If Washington does attempt to engage Syria, it cannot simply ignore al-Kibar. Syria’s apparent nuclear development and subsequent deception reinforce pre-existing concerns about the country’s interest in regional peace and stability. Pretending that the al-Kibar incident did not occur would send the wrong signal to Syria and other potentially dangerous proliferators in the Middle East.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is director and Joshua D. Goodman is deputy director of the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.