Inspectors from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency have exposed another facility in Syria suspected of being part of President Bashar Assad's nuclear weapons program. The facility is no longer part of Damascus' nuclear program and has been converted into a cotton spinning plant in an attempt to disguise its former use.
The IAEA has asked Syria to allow its inspectors to access the facility and supply it with documents on the activities there in the past. Syria has refused.
The facility is in the country's far northeast. It seems to have been part of a uranium enrichment program using centrifuges. It is not clear if centrifuges were ever installed at the complex or if the Syrians started uranium enrichment. If Syria did produce enriched uranium, it must have been transferred to an unknown location.
The facility was built according to a plan Syria obtained from the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan. He also supplied such uranium enrichment plans to Iran and North Korea. Khan visited the Middle East secretly in the late 1990s and offered his plans to a number of countries. The Syrian facility is an exact copy of the one Libya's Muammar Gadhafi had planned to construct based on plans he bought from Khan.
The IAEA also obtained correspondence between Khan and a Syrian government official, Muhidin Issa, who proposed scientific cooperation and a visit to Khan's laboratories following Pakistan's successful nuclear test in 1998. A suspected plutonium production reactor in Dir Azur in Syria was destroyed in a 2007 bombing Syria attributes to Israel.
Syria seems to have been pursuing two routes to an atomic bomb: uranium as well as plutonium. Iran and North Korea are advancing their nuclear programs via both routes.
The Syrian government has denied pursuing nuclear weapons but also has stymied an investigation into the sites. It has not responded to an IAEA request to visit the Al-Hasakah complex. The Hasakah Spinning Co. has a website that shows photos of manufacturing equipment inside the facility.
The IAEA's examination of Syria's programs has slowed as world powers focus on the uprising in the country and Assad's violent crackdown. There is no indication that Syria is close to developing nuclear weapons. If the facility in Al-Hasakah was indeed intended for uranium production, those plans appear to have been abandoned and the path to a plutonium weapon ended with the bombing Syria attributes to Israel.
IAEA investigators homed in on Al-Hasakah after a search of satellite imagery in the Middle East sparked by a belief that Khan had another government customer that had not yet come to light. They identified the site, the largest industrial complex in Al-Hasakah, after a 2006 report in a Kuwaiti newspaper claimed that Syria had a secret nuclear program in the city.
Satellite imagery of Al-Hasakah revealed striking similarities to plans for a uranium enrichment facility that were seized during a Swiss investigation related to Khan. For years there has been speculation about ties between Syria and Khan.
Khan is considered the world's most prolific nuclear merchant. He supplied Iran with the basics of what is now an established uranium enrichment program that has churned out enough material to make several nuclear weapons.
In 2004, Khan confessed to selling nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya but has never spoken of Syria. The IAEA asked to visit the site more than two years ago. But it has not pressed the issue, focusing its efforts on the bombed site.
IAEA inspectors were allowed to visit the bombed site once, but have not been allowed back for nearly three years. In May, they said the site was in fact a nearly built nuclear reactor. The agency later referred the issue to the UN Security Council, effectively dismissing Syrian denials.
Syria again refused new inspections after talks with the IAEA in Damascus last week, Syrian diplomats said. The officials said they would provide new evidence that the bombed site was non-nuclear. IAEA officials remain skeptical because Syria did not describe the new information or say when it would be provided.
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