Reactor Notes

The subject of Syria’s supposed nuclear reactor, and the possible destruction thereof, continues to generate discussion. In the last couple days, a number of interesting new developments have taken place, some of which deserve a closer look.

New photos have been released which show the now-demolished structure near the Euphrates may have been begun circa 2000. In some quarters, this is being interpreted to mean that Syria’s still-unproven “nuclear program” is even older and more advanced – and therefore more of a danger – than previously believed. I have doubts about this, for two reasons – one being that it’s an analytically suspect inference, at best. More importantly, though, I don’t believe it credible that Syria would have begun any serious nuclear weapons program that long ago, if relying on assistance from North Korea. However strong your nuclear ambitions, I can’t see a country today beginning something as expensive, secret, and potentially controversial as a nuclear-weapon program on the technical advice of a country with an unproven, unsuccessful program of their own. Remember, in 2001, North Korea’s ambitions to have nuclear weapons were little more than a dream; depending on whose interpretation of the recent underground test they conducted, they may or may not even now have a working nuclear weapon, or even the fissile material for one. In 2001, North Korea had just been a front-burner target of attention from the Clinton administration, and Syria had no way to know that the Global War on Brown People would, at least for a few years, greatly lessen American political interest in North Korea’s nuclear development.

There are other countries Syria could have gotten nuclear advice from, either in 2000 or more recently, but the constant stream of finger-pointing at North Korea seems awfully convenient, and based on pretty flimsy “evidence”.

Let’s see, what else? Ah, yes, comments from the U.N. and the IAEA that they’re reviewing “commercial” imagery, and not that from anyone’s military or intelligence sources. Pure sophistry; companies like GeoEye, GlobalExplorer, and others are major suppliers of satellite imagery to military and intelligence services. The privately-sourced stuff isn’t of as quite as high quality as that produced by government and military satellites, but for many things it’s more than good enough – and the price is right.

2003 satellite images published over the weekend show more clearly the area around the “suspect”, now-demolished, site. There don’t seem to be any signs of high-power electricity lines running to the facility, which, various skeptics assert, you’d need to run a reactor and related equipment. Further, it’s much more clear that the whole complex sits high atop a hillside, visible from quite some distance. Why you’d want to put a nuclear reactor on top of a hill like that, where everyone and their mother can see it from miles away, I don’t know, unless you were being cheap and wanted to run water from the river only so far. Given the total costs of building and maintaining a nuclear program, that seems, charitably, stupid. If you’re going to do something you know will invoke the ire of the Great Satan, you’re going to make at least a token effort to hide it, right? Stick it in a valley, where it’s obscured by shadows half the day, or do as the Russians used to, and stick “it” – whatever “it” is – underground.

Are the Syrians stupid? Or was the large building something that it makes sense to stick on top of a hill – perhaps even something you need to have atop a hill?

Now, way back when the air strike was first reported, there were a flurry of reports in the media speculating (wildly!) at how the Israelis might have “jammed” Syria’s supposedly quite-advanced air-defense system. No details of the Syrian air-defense network have been published anywhere, as far as I can tell, but they’re widely reported to have a very advanced, very cutting-edge system, and the ability of the Israelis to apparently negate it generated a number of comments. We like to think of them as a backwards, third-world country, but that doesn’t in any way mean they’re cheap – or stupid. The whole “jamming” story quickly faded, as the subject of what was struck became more interesting.

From the little available public information – a couple of aerial photographs and some assorted news reports, including statements from various subjects, named and unnamed – I think it’s equally valid – indeed, perhaps more valid – to suggest that what used to be atop that hill in Syria was a large air-defense radar. Others have suggested a missile silo, or even a hangar for one or two helicopters, and you can’t really discount those, either.

One question that nobody has answered yet is why Israel would have bombed the “reactor” in the first place. Whatever it was, was located in the heart of Syria – but Syria is a fairly small place, remember – around four-hundred miles east to west. Some estimates made with a map and a ruler suggest that most of Israel – as well as Lebanon, the Gaza strip, et cetera – are within three-hundred miles of the now-demolished hilltop structure, a not-unrealistic range for a fairly modern radar system, let alone even a fairly unadvanced over-the-horizon one.

Syria is often accused – and perhaps rightly so – of supporting Palestinian militants by a number of means, including training and equipment. If the Israelis had information that Damascus was providing, or planning to provide, real-time or near-real-time information on IAF operations to Hamas, they might well have chosen to “do something” about it. For that matter, were the site a radar, and newly operational, the operators might have done something incredible stupid – like track and interrogate an Israeli F-16 – either on accident or on purpose, and attracted a quiet, low-key reprisal from the Israelis. Such a tit-for-tat flexing of muscles would be understood by both countries for what it was, and both would likely consider the matter closed. This would explain the lack of significant outrage on the part of Syria, and the complete lack of comment by Israel…

The point is, you just can’t know for sure. The subject of making inferences from the absence of evidence – at least, the absence of available evidence – seems to provoke a lot of thought and discussion about it’s usefulness and shortcomings. With that in mind, one has to ask why, if we had bona-fide evidence of a Syrian nuclear reactor, completed or under construction, the U.S. government has been so quiet about the specifics? For that matter, even if we don’t have that information, why keep mum? All sorts of (incorrect, admittedly) details were provided about Iraq’s supposed weapons-of-mass-destruction programs, and the American government was quick to provide all sorts of detailed commentary and analysis about North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear experiment. All these “unnamed sources” and anonymous “senior officials” add doubt, not credibility, to the claims.

Somebody – several somebodies – know the truth, but nobody is apparently willing to show proof of anything – nor be attributable and accountable for any of the claims going around. That might well change, but for the time being, there’s every bit as much actual, solid evidence for the Israelis having bombed a radar station as for a reactor – or a helicopter hangar, for that matter.

Published in: Geekiness, General, Security | on October 29th, 2007| 1 Comment »

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One Comment

  1. On 10/30/2007 at 12:44 pm Isaac Said:

    Syria OSINT. Cool site.