Text size

Click here for more articles by Yossi Melman

The discovery of enriched uranium at the Syrian military site that Israel bombed last year may be the first step toward revealing Syria's smoking gun. This week, International Atomic Energy Agency Director Mohamed ElBaradei will submit a report to the organization's Board of Governors on Syria's nuclear program. The report will state that IAEA inspectors discovered traces of enriched uranium at the site on the bank of the Euphrates River.

This will be ElBaradei's first written report on the Syrian issue, and the first time since the bombing that a non-American, non-Israeli official has expressed suspicions that the bombed site was a nuclear reactor. Until now, only the CIA claimed the structure was a nuclear reactor in the final stages of construction, but even it spoke cautiously, noting that radioactive material had yet to be introduced to the site.

The IAEA report not only strengthens claims by the American and Israeli intelligence community, it even goes beyond them. Since the bombing, the Syrians have made every effort to deny, confuse and conceal the nature of the site. At first they claimed Israeli planes entered their airspace but were repelled. Then they said the planes dropped a few bombs, but caused no damage.

Later, Syrian President Bashar Assad confirmed that the planes had bombed a military building, but denied vehemently that the location contained a nuclear reactor. North Korea, which built the facility, echoed Assad's sentiments.

Photographs released by U.S. intelligence show clearly that the structures that survived the bombing were quickly cleared away, and vast amounts of soil were removed from the area, most likely to remove traces of radioactivity.

Furthermore, Syria found various ways to block IAEA inspectors from the site. In June, nine months after the bombing, Damascus finally allowed inspectors to enter. They took samples of earth, rocks, air, water and plants, and transferred them to IAEA laboratories in Austria.

The results that emerged were complicated and ambiguous, and experts struggled to come to definitive conclusions. For a while it seemed as if Syria's efforts to hide the circumstances of the bombing were succeeding. Lately, however, experts have drawn clear results - traces of man-made uranium were identified at the site.

The experts were unable to determine the precise source of the radioactive material, but have cited three options. The first is that small amounts of radioactive material entered the site during its construction, which conflicts with U.S. intelligence's preliminary findings. The second option is that Syrian or foreign nuclear experts came into contact with radioactive material at their workplace and unintentionally left it behind at the facility. A final option is that equipment previously used to enrich uranium was installed at the site.

The discovery of uranium now reinforces the onus on the Assad regime, which will be forced to provide comprehensive explanations. The strange pronouncements made last week by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem - that the Israeli planes dropped bombs bearing radioactive material - can hardly be considered such an explanation.

The IAEA will demand that Syria allow its officials to speak with the experts who discovered the radioactive material or equipment at the site. For several weeks Damascus has refused to allow additional visits from IAEA inspectors, and if it persists, suspicions will heighten that it has something to hide.

Pushing Syria into the corner is reminiscent of what happened to Iran. Tehran also denied at first that it had built hidden nuclear facilities (such as the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, the centrifuge factory in Tehran and the reactor in Arak.)

When the truth finally emerged, Iran was forced to admit the existence of the sites, but continued to deny that they were being used for nuclear activity. As it was confronted with ever more facts, it continued weaving its web of lies, until the IAEA finally labeled it a non-compliant country that had violated its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on it.

Syria is still far from that point, but the discovery of uranium at the bombed site could be a turning point. It could be the first step toward finding the smoking gun that incriminates Damascus in the international community, and strengthens Israel's claim that its own operation was necessary and justified to prevent Syria from developing a nuclear weapon.