Yesterday morning here over a latte and a croissant–Kurfuerstendamm Ecke Schlueterstrasse–I got my ear bent by someone telling me that Israel and Western countries are now worried about the fate of 50 metric tons of uranium secretly stashed away in Syria. Reflecting for a couple of minutes after clicking off my cell, I strongly suspected that I was not the sole recipient of that message from certain quarters, and, sure enough, 24 hours later, my intuition proved to be spot on.
This morning a small number of international news outlets all ran that little item up the flagpole. I admit I was intrigued by the lead we were all spoon-fed yesterday (“Missing Uranium in Syria May be Headed to Iran”) since in fact the war between Assad’s forces and rebel troops around Damascus the last few weeks has been hotting up. If there is a cache of uranium in the greater Damascus area, as our interlocutors insist, it very well could be in the crossfire of antagonists and hence right now making Israel and some Western governments nervous, and possibly may have been part of some recent chit-chatting on Syria at the IAEA.
The territory surrounding the Syrian capital is not firmly under the control of either side, and the idea that uranium might be bestowed on Iran by either party is hardly far-fetched, since there is other evidence suggesting that both Assad and the rebels are courting Iran’s favor. Whoever has his mitts on any uranium in the country might be willing to spirit it to Iran in return for good will, money, or hardware. (If after reading this you still don’t understand why it’s important for the IAEA to establish the completeness and correctness of countries’ nuclear declarations, then you’ll probably never get it.)
But in the end, I gave this item a belated shrug yesterday in favor of more pressing matters on my plate because, frankly, there wasn’t any real new information here about the alleged nuclear material or its whereabouts.
No doubt, as did the reporters who had been dialed up about this, yesterday I quickly homed in on the Marj as-Sultan site as the likely location for the uranium in Syria, as I assume we had all been told by informants that the material was someplace on the outskirts of Damascus. Given that we’ve known for awhile about three locations in Syria which the IAEA has reason to believe may be related to the bombed installation at Al-Kibar, deemed last year by Director General Yukiya Amano as most likely a destroyed nuclear reactor, looking at Marj as-Sultan first was a no-brainer because it is the only one of the three sites in a Damascus suburb.
But not to anticipate. Where near Damascus is the uranium, I had asked yesterday. My interlocutors didn’t want to go there. That little omission might possibly be significant, because in October last year, this site asserted that Syrian rebels had determined that uranium was found to be at a different location north of Damascus (Marj as-Sultan is east) associated with chemical weapons materials which were being stored there. (Last night I queried that website for the link to five YouTube videos it asserted that rebels had made and which had originally broadcast this allegation; the site’s managers today told me they could not locate the videos, and instead attached this link to a Bill Gertz article which claims to know what is in the video clips, and asserts even further that the chemical site hosts “enriched uranium.”)
If Syria intends to ship to Iran uranium (in this case natural uranium metal and at least some of it in the form of fuel assemblies each containing eight pins), then Syria most certainly would have to tell the IAEA. If Iran obtains it, Iran would have to do the same. Article III.2 of the NPT and Article 34 of the model NPT safeguards agreement require that this material can’t change hands between Syria and Iran unless safeguards are attached. If Syria were to export it, it would have to notify to the IAEA the identity, quantity, composition, and material balance area where the material comes from; the country where it is exported to; dates and locations for shipping; scheduled dates for dispatch and arrival, and; the point of transfer and date of transfer.
All these requirements would likely be moot, of course, if any uranium metal fuel in Syria subject to transport were not to have been declared to the IAEA. And you can bet that 50 MT of uranium metal would not have been declared, since Syria continues to deny that it was running a clandestine nuclear program when Israeli aircraft took off for Al-Kibar.
The FT account this morning appeared to insinuate that the “gradual removal of a large orchard for no apparent reason” near Marj as-Sultan constituted suspicious behavior. Tree-cutting as a signature for nefarious nuclear activity? They may speculate. But in fact we don’t know so far whether anyone looking for this uranium in Syria has ever actually seen any.
At the time the civil war broke out, the IAEA had not obtained any specific information identifying beyond any doubt where the fuel for Al-Kibar was currently located. Information pointing to nuclear fuel-related activities at Marj as-Sultan indicated there was equipment on site that might have been used to process or fabricate nuclear fuel. But had anyone clearly identified nuclear fuel rods or assemblies at Marj as-Sultan before the war broke out? Not to my knowledge.
Today the situation may be different. Assad is losing his grip, and his military can no longer keep adversaries from coming and going, including in and out of strategic facilities. If there is in fact any hidden uranium in Syria, the number of people who know where it is might be growing.