Syria’s nuclear powers II

A fool throws a rock in a pond and ten thousands wise men struggle to get it out. That’s what happened after a Der Spiegel report on how Syria might have such a well hidden nuclear facility next to the Lebanese borders, that nobody ever noticed. The original is here.

An inaccessible mountain region in an area strictly controlled by Hezbollah at the border with Lebanon, a mysterious construction visible from satellite, and an alleged intercepted conversation between Hezbollah and Syrian officials talking about a certain “atomic factory” called Zamzam, after a mythical Old Testament legend. Intelligence reports quoted by Der Spiegel found that it was the probable location of an alleged nuclear facility belonging to the Syrian government and administered with help from Iran and Hezbollah.

Der Spiegel, quoting intelligence reports, reported that the alleged plant was two kilometers from the Lebanese border, deep underground, near the town of Qusayr and has access to electricity and water supply. According to the report, satellite images show six structures that conceal entrances to the facility and that the site has special access to Syria’s power grid.

The possibility that Damascus might have hidden nuclear ambitions like its ally Iran has long been the concern of intelligence agencies and international organizations, especially after the Israeli Air Force bombed the Al-Kibar facility in September 2007. Back then, the UN nuclear watchdog investigation concluded that the bombed location was indeed meant for nuclear purposes. Since then, several reports released by intelligence agencies and some international think tanks have pointed to several other locations in Syria that might have been connected to the Al-Kibar site. Some, it was reported, might have contained the nuclear fuel meant for Al-Kibar. Elsewhere it was reported that the fuel had been transferred to Iran.

The new report says that approximately 8,000 fuel rods are stored at the recently discovered location. Furthermore, a new reactor or an enrichment facility has very likely been built at the site — a development of incalculable geopolitical consequences.” Syria has denied pursuing a military nuclear program and many experts don’t believe such a thing could be feasible at the location noted in the Der Spiegel report.

“It would be absolutely crazy to build such a strategic nuclear facility in an area that is out of their control, so close to Lebanon, especially after what happened in the past few years,” Robert Kelley, a former director at the International Atomic Energy Agency, told NOW. “A facility like that, a reactor or an enrichment plant, would cost at least $100 million. Each one of them requires a lot of special equipment: they need very specialized valves for both types of facilities, very specialized pumps, a lot of stainless steel, a cooling system — the well connected to a lake made no sense whatsoever.”

In order to build an underground enrichment plant or a reactor, the Syrian government would have had to excavate a large area, move heavy equipment and transport personnel. It would also need to build a large underground structure around the facility and watch for corrosion.  

According to scientific publications, though, it is possible to build a buried mini-reactor. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Singaporewas looking into the idea, which is to bury a small reactor in a shallow layer of bedrock, perhaps 30-50 meters underground. Granite can provide natural containment. But even this technology is very expensive and only very small reactors would be cost-effective. More to the point, the two companies developing the technology are years away from implementation.

A more interesting location nearby

Kelley believes that any information published on a topic as sensitive as Syrian nuclear activities needs to be studied for at least “a solid two minutes,” and he’s read in to the new information.

“The Spiegel place looks like missile storage. I don’t see any chance of it being a reactor or enrichment plant,” he said. But Kelley also said that it was worth looking around the location, noting a group of buildings located at around one kilometer away that he finds even more interesting.

On satellite maps, the location Der Spiegel  reported is connected by a barely-visible, unpaved road to the second location. But the group of buildings, which have been there for quite a while, are primarily accessible via a recently-paved road from Lebanon. Over the border, the road coming from the facility in Syria stops on the outskirts of Qasr, a Hezbollah-controlled area in Hermel.

The area was the scene of intense fighting between the Free Syrian Army and Hezbollah in spring 2013. Free Syrian Army brigades shelled Lebanon’s Qasr several times from the mountains across the border. Back then, Hezbollah was involved in fierce fighting with rebel brigades in the Homs area, and the shelling of Qasr took place right before the battle of Qusayr.

This is not the only indication that Hezbollah has a strategic military position in the are around Qasr and across the border. A reportpublished by Shia Watch also noted a heavy Hezbollah military presence in the area. “ShiaWatch has learned firsthand that the village of Hosh as-Sayyed Ali, located adjacent to the Lebanese village of Qasr, has become a veritable parking lot for artillery and other weapons trained on the Syrian rebels. Notably, all television and media outlets have ignored the developing situation in this region, instead turning their attention to the Sunni-dominated border region of Arsal. It seems that “certain authorities” have forbidden media representatives to file any informative reports from there, a tactic Hezbollah also employs in the south and in Beirut’s Dahiyeh suburbs,” the report reads.

Nuclear or military?

Syrian rebel sources from Qusair told NOW spoke to were long aware that Hezbollah has a facility in that region but they didn’t really think that its nature was nuclear. Now, after the recent reports, they have doubts.

“We just know that Hezbollah has weapons and other ammunition storage places in the area,” a Syrian activist told NOW, on condition of anonymity. “I am not an expert in nuclear facilities, but I imagine they would need much more than this. If there was anything like this in the area, people would talk,” he said. He also said that Syrian rebel brigades in the area noticed a lot of security, both Iranian and Hezbollah, in the region across the border from Qasr. However, he said, there is absolutely no proof that it’s evidence of a nuclear facility and not a military camp. “Hezbollah has underground facilities like this in the south of Lebanon where the fighters take shelter and train. They used to have them during the war with Israel. In any case, they do have something there, I’m convinced,” he said.

Another Syrian activist, who also requested anonymity for security reasons, said that the presence of a hidden nuclear facility in the area would help the case of the Syrian uprising and might convince the West to intervene in the war. “I wish this was true, but, in fact I have no idea,” he said. “But it’s already beyond the point to look for such excuses to remove Bashar Assad from power, when people die every day by conventional weapons.”

Kassem Kassir, an independent journalist who focuses on Hezbollah’s political and military evolution, said that the new report, whether true or not, is probably an effort to connect the Syrian and Iranian nuclear activities at a time when international negotiations with Iran are at an impasse. But he doubts that Hezbollah would get involved in nuclear activities.

“By trying to have nuclear facilities, Iran is trying to create a certain power in the region,” he said. “Hezbollah does not have the same interest. If the party had access to nuclear power, where would it use it? Hezbollah is more interested in having traditional weapons and rockets that serve the war the party is in. Hezbollah’s priorities are somewhere else; it’s more interested in traditional weapons, the security situation, the Syrian war, etc., not nuclear weapons.”

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