Monday, February 22, 2010

How Syria benefits from the axis of proliferation.


by Tony Badran


An undated image released during a briefing by senior US officials on April 24, 2008 in Washington DC showing what US intelligence officials said was a Syrian nuclear reactor built with North Korean help. (AFP photo/US government)

Two weeks ago, a report appeared on the Japanese news site Nikkei quoting Western intelligence sources as saying that North Korea was once again providing “sensitive military technology” to Syria. The report got little coverage in the Western media and came shortly before US the under secretary of state for political affairs, William Burns, is scheduled to visit Syria. The purpose of his trip has been described as being about Iran as well as Syria’s ongoing smuggling of weapons to Hezbollah.
A day after the Nikkei report, the US director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, briefed the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about his team’s
annual threat assessment (pdf). The assessment mentioned North Korea’s cooperation with Syria in building the clandestine nuclear reactor at Al-Kibar that Israel destroyed in September 2007. It also noted that US intelligence “remain[s] alert to the possibility North Korea could again export nuclear technology.” 
Indeed, the Nikkei story claimed that North Korea was helping Syria build a production line for
maraging steel “that can be used in missile skins, chemical warheads and gas centrifuges, a vital component in the uranium enrichment process.” Maraging steel is an alloy possessing strength and malleability that, among other things, “allow it to be formed into thinner rocket and missile skins that can carry heavier payloads.”
The brazenness of this development was remarkable, even by North Korean and Syrian standards. It showed just how much of a gambler Bashar al-Assad really is and has been since he inherited power in Damascus. Yet the Syrian president has grown accustomed to calculating that he can beat the odds against Syria’s paying a serious political price for his actions. For instance, Syria still has not cooperated with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inquiry into its Al-Kibar nuclear site. Instead, Assad may be continuing to push his quest for nukes.
This comes against the background of a recent war of words between Israel and Damascus, and amid public concerns by the Obama administration that the continued Syrian supply of weapons to Hezbollah – especially surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles directly from Syrian army stockpiles – might lead to a war in Lebanon that would also
involve Syria.
To be sure, the North Korean-Syrian military relationship has not been confined to nuclear cooperation. Rather, as the Nikkei report notes, it also extends to ballistics and chemical weapons. Iran appears to be involved in the collaboration as well – as it may have been in Syria’s aborted nuclear program,
reportedly financed by Tehran. According to several reports in Jane’s Defence Weekly, Der Spiegel, and Sankei Shimbun, a July 2007 explosion at a facility near Aleppo killed both Iranian and North Korean scientists working on fitting warheads filled with chemical agents.
Since the days of Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian regime has unsuccessfully sought to achieve “strategic parity” with Israel. Bashar al-Assad has evidently not given up on that quest, hence his wager on nuclear cooperation with North Korea. Moreover, in light of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem’s threat that a war with Israel would be fought “inside [Israel’s] cities,” Syria may be attempting to upgrade its missile arsenal in the hope of projecting its deterrence power. Both Hamas and Hezbollah openly argue that any future conflict between them and Israel will not be restricted, but instead will be “regional.”
As if renewed military cooperation with Syria weren’t bad enough, in December Thailand’s authorities
seized a large North Korean weapons shipment bound for Iran. This was not the first such intercepted cargo. For example, Emirati authorities stopped a shipment in Dubai last August. Iran operates a complex, region-wide network through which it redistributes these arms to its regional clients.
George W. Bush’s warning of an “axis of evil” involving Iran and North Korea was dismissed as the ramblings of a cowboy president. However, the Iranian-Syrian-North Korean triangle is very real. Although the US annual threat assessment recalled how North Korea signed an agreement in October 2007 “reaffirm[ing] its commitment not to transfer nuclear materials,” the evidence suggests otherwise. Its weapons smuggling, additionally, violates the United Nations arms embargo laid out in Security Council Resolution 1874.
This weapons proliferation should make those who advocate “containing” Iran pause. If proliferation has been a feature of North Korea’s behavior, then supporting militant groups has been Iran’s path to center stage in regional politics, and Syria’s means of remaining relevant. For all the talk of threats by non-state actors, the basic fact remains that they are being supplied weapons and offered deterrence umbrellas only by states.
The ongoing strong military cooperation between North Korea, Iran and Syria should also put to rest the vacuous notion that Damascus can somehow be “distanced” from Iran. The Syrians continue to make it crystal clear that they have no intention of dropping their alliances. As a weak regional actor, Syria needs the alliance to strengthen its leverage. It shouldn’t take another Syrian nuclear reactor, chemical warheads or advanced weapons systems passed on to Hezbollah to figure this out.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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