As far as the Obama administration is concerned, the only thing to worry about in Syria these days is the still potent ISIS terrorist movement that has occupied a large section of the country as well as one in Iraq. U.S. efforts to roll back ISIS’s enormous gains in the last year have fallen flat, but that failure has been accompanied by a tacit alliance with the Assad regime and its Iranian ally that has led Washington to forget that only a year and a half ago it was prepared to use force to compel Syria’s government to give up the chemical weapons it had used against civilians. But according to Germany’s Der Spiegel, Obama’s sleight-of-hand diplomacy may eventually blow up in our faces. According to the paper, the Syrians have, with help from Iran and North Korea, begun to reconstitute their WMD program. In particular, they are seeking rebuild the same nuclear program the Israelis took out with a pre-emptive strike in 2007. If so, instead of helping to rid the region of nukes, the administration may be acquiescing to a profoundly dangerous instance of proliferation.
The Syrians are denying the Der Spiegel report but their claim that it is all lies is no more to be trusted than anything else that emanates from that despotic and murderous regime. Far more credible are the allegations that Syria has used the cover of the civil war to begin the work of reassembling a WMD threat even as Assad claimed to be getting rid of his chemical weapons under the supervision of his Russian ally. This is shocking because Israel had thought it had put to rest the nuclear threat with a daring raid that took out the Syrians’ reactor. According to the German paper:
Analysts say that the Syrian atomic weapon program has continued in a secret, underground location. According to information they have obtained, approximately 8,000 fuel rods are stored there. Furthermore, a new reactor or an enrichment facility has very likely been built at the site — a development of incalculable geopolitical consequences.
Some of the uranium was apparently hidden for an extended period at Marj as-Sultan near Damascus, a site that the IAEA likewise views with suspicion. Satellite images from December 2012 and February 2013 show suspicious activity at Marj as-Sultan. The facility, located not far from a Syrian army base, had become the focal point of heavy fighting with rebels. Government troops had to quickly move everything of value. They did so, as intelligence officials have been able to reconstruct, with the help of Hezbollah, the radical Shiite “Party of God” based in Lebanon. The well-armed militia, which is largely financed by Iran, is fighting alongside Assad’s troops.
The report goes on to describe the effort as being largely the work of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and has been aided by North Korean advisers.
It should be conceded that no matter how much progress they’ve made in the last year, Syria is probably a long way from a bomb. But given Iranian involvement, the creation of this facility raises doubts about the efficacy of any nuclear deal with Tehran struck by an Obama administration eager for any agreement that could foster détente with the Islamist regime.
Just as dangerous is the thought that Assad, who is winning his civil war due as much to American indifference as to aid from Iran and Hezbollah, will not only survive but also emerge even more dangerous and powerful than he was before the rebellion against him began.
A Syria that is either on its way to becoming a nuclear threshold state or which will serve as a depository for an Iranian nuclear program that is forced to go partially underground by a sham deal with the West would, at best, be a destabilizing force in an already volatile region. At worst, it would be a standing invitation to a new war involving Israel, Hezbollah, and Hamas that sets the Middle East aflame.
The answer to this threat should be clear. The U.S. and its allies must either insist that this facility be shut down and destroyed or it must be taken out by air strikes either by Western forces or the Israelis, who continue to be available to do America’s dirty work in this regard.
But the most worrisome aspect of this issue is not only Assad’s determination to get back to the position of strength he occupied before the civil war. It’s that the U.S. policy in Syria is so deeply entwined with that of Iran and the Syrian government that it may not be possible to persuade Obama to act no matter what Damascus does. The administration seems intent on empowering Tehran and allowing it to keep its nuclear toys in the hope that this will cause it to abandon the pursuit of a weapon as well as allowing it to, in the president’s foolish phrase, “get right with the world.” But it appears détente with Iran may also mean a set of policies that causes the U.S. to acquiesce to a Syrian regime that is a danger to its own people and its neighbors. If there were ever a reason for the president to reevaluate a course that seems set for disaster, the news about Syria would seem to be it.