Page last updated at 07:53 GMT, Monday, 23 June 2008 08:53 UK

Will Syrian site mystery be solved?

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Undated photo released by CIA of alleged nuclear reactor under construction in eastern Syria.
The suspected site could yield nuclear secrets

UN nuclear weapons inspectors have started a mission to Syria where they are trying to solve the mystery of the building attacked by the Israelis last September and which, according to the CIA, was a nuclear reactor under construction.

However, since the structure has since been completely demolished, the evidence might be elusive.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, said: "It is doubtful we will find anything there now, assuming there was anything in the first place."


Mr ElBaradei has also cast doubt on Syria's ability to construct and run such a complex nuclear process.

"We have no evidence that Syria has the human resources that would allow it to carry out a large nuclear programme," he told al-Arabiya television.

He has also said that "no nuclear material" had been introduced at the site. So it is highly unlikely that there will be signs of any radioactivity there.

"Don't expect too much from this trip," said Mark Fitzpatrick, nuclear expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "But the IAEA has in the past found things that the hosts didn't expect, as in North Korea, so it's possible Syria will be surprised."

Relying on Syria

The inspectors do have photos provided by the Americans. These allegedly show the inside of the building and the suspected reactor. But a lot will also depend on what the Syrians say.

6 Sept 2007: Israel bombs site in Syria
1 Oct: Syria's President Assad tells BBC site was military
24 Oct: New satellite images show site now bulldozed clear
24 April 2008: US claims Syrian site was nuclear reactor
22 June: IAEA due to visit Syria to investigate

Led by the IAEA chief inspector Olli Heinonen, the inspectors arrive in Syria on Sunday and will stay until Tuesday.

They could ask to see the architect's drawings for the building, and ask to question the architect and the construction engineers. They could ask to see rubble from the building, and take samples, especially from any surviving parts of the suspected nuclear reactor.

They will in any case ask the Syrians what the building was for, if it was not, as the Bush administration claimed, "a covert nuclear reactor in its eastern desert capable of producing plutonium". Plutonium can be used to construct a nuclear bomb.

"We are convinced, based on a variety of information, that North Korea assisted Syria's covert nuclear activities. We have good reason to believe that reactor, which was damaged beyond repair on 6 September of last year, was not intended for peaceful purposes," the White House said in April this year.

Syrian denials

Syria has said that the site, at al-Kibar, was a military building under construction and was not a nuclear facility.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said that Syria does not have a nuclear weapons programme.

Syria is a member of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which bars it from making nuclear weapons.

The IAEA has in the past found things that the hosts didn't expect... so it's possible Syria will be surprised
Mark Fitzpatrick

A test of Syrian co-operation will be whether the inspectors gain access to three other sites. Syria has reportedly told other Arab countries that these are military bases not connected with the suspect site at al-Kibar.

One site is said by diplomatic sources, who spoke to the Associated Press news agency, to be suspected of having "equipment that can reprocess nuclear material into the fissile core of warheads".

Wider worries

Behind the IAEA visit, there is the wider issue of what to do if a country is suspected of trying to develop nuclear weapons secretly. The IAEA is furious that it was not alerted by Israel or the United States about evidence concerning the al-Kibar site before it was bombed. The IAEA thinks it could have established what was going on there.

The IAEA is anxious to preserve its leading role in the investigation of possible violations of the NPT.

The Americans are doubtful that the IAEA can do the job properly. It took US and British intelligence operations to get Libya to admit to secret nuclear activities and abandon them in 2003.

The Israelis have their own solutions. They bombed Iraq's nuclear plant in 1981 and did the same to the Syrian construction last year.

There is plenty of talk in Israel that at some stage Israel will decide to attack Iran's nuclear enrichment plant. The New York Times has reported that a major Israeli air exercise involving more than 100 F-15 and F-16 aircraft took place in early June and was apparently designed to develop long-range bombing techniques.

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