Assad's Secret: Evidence Points to Syrian Push for Nuclear Weapons
By Erich Follath DER SPIEGEL January 09, 2015 – 09:20 PM
For years, it was thought that Israel had destroyed Syria's nuclear weapons
capability with its 2007 raid on the Kibar complex. Not so. New intelligence
suggests that Bashar al-Assad is still trying to built the bomb. And he may
be getting help from North Korea and Iran.
At 11 p.m. on Sept. 5, 2007, 10 F-15 fighter bombers climbed into the sky
from the Israeli military base Ramat David, just south of Haifa. They headed
for the Mediterranean Sea, officially for a training mission. A half hour
later, three of the planes were ordered to return to base while the others
changed course, heading over Turkey toward the Syrian border. There, they
eliminated a radar station with electronic jamming signals and, after 18
more minutes, reached the city of Deir al-Zor, located on the banks of the
Euphrates River. Their target was a complex of structures known as Kibar,
just east of the city. The Israelis fired away, completely destroying the
factory using Maverick missiles and 500 kilogram bombs.
The pilots returned to base without incident and Operation Orchard was
brought to a successful conclusion. In Jerusalem, then-Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert and his closest advisors were in a self-congratulatory mood,
convinced as they were that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was seeking to
build a nuclear weapon and that Kibar was the almost-completed facility
where that construction was to take place. They believed that their
dangerous operation had saved the world from immense harm.
But they also wanted to prevent the situation from escalating, which is why
they didn't even inform the US of their plan prior to the bombing run.
Olmert only called Washington once the operation had been completed. Orchard
was also to remain secret in Israel so as to avoid anything that smacked of
triumphalism. Nor did they want it to become known that North Korean nuclear
experts had been spotted in Deir al-Zor helping out with the construction of
the reactor. They hoped to provide Assad an opportunity to play down the
incident and to abstain from revenge attacks.
And that is in fact what happened. Assad complained about the violation of
Syrian airspace and the bombing of a "warehouse," but the official version
also claimed that the Syrian air force chased away the attackers. The public
at the time did not learn what had really taken place.
Now, secret information obtained by SPIEGEL indicates that the world is once
again being misled by Assad. Syria's dictator has not given up his dream of
an atomic weapon and has apparently built a new nuclear facility at a secret
location. It is an extremely unsettling piece of news.
Suspicious Uranium Particles
Back in 2007, it proved impossible to completely quell rumors about the
mysterious building complex in the desert and its possible military purpose.
In contrast to Israel and Pakistan, Syria is a signatory to the Treaty on
the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and is thus committed to using
nuclear power only for peaceful purposes. And the International Atomic
Energy Agency in Vienna demanded access to the site. In June 2008, Assad
finally gave in to the IAEA's pressure and experts under the leadership of
Olli Heinonen, a native of Finland, were allowed to inspect the destroyed
It quickly became apparent that Damascus had done everything it could to
destroy all traces of what had been going on there. But the atomic
detectives from the IAEA were nevertheless able to find suspicious uranium
particles -- a discovery that the Syrian government sought to explain away
as a potential act of sabotage. Though the IAEA noted that its investigation
did not turn up definitive proof, the organization requested access to three
other facilities due to ongoing suspicions. The IAEA suspected that the trio
of nuclear sites may be connected to Kibar, particularly the suspected
enrichment facility Marj as-Sultan, located 15 kilometers north of Damascus.
The Syrians refused, angered by what they called "unfounded defamation."
A clear picture of the background of the Israeli operation and the details
of the commando raid was only made possible by a precise reconstruction by
SPIEGEL in 2009, assembled following interviews with political leaders,
nuclear experts and secret service experts. Assad, to be sure, denied having
nuclear ambitions in a 2009 interview with SPIEGEL, saying: "We want a
nuclear-free Middle East, Israel included." But the IAEA investigation
report in May 2011 and a story in the New Yorker in 2012 made it clear even
to skeptics that Syria had been playing with fire. "The Agency concludes
that the destroyed building was very likely a nuclear reactor," the IAEA
report notes with uncharacteristic clarity.
Afterward, all activity ceased at the destroyed site, as shown by regularly
analyzed satellite images of the area. But did that mean that the Israeli
attack really brought an end to all Syrian plans for the development of a
Continued Pursuit of the Bomb
The factory had been on the verge of completion and many observers believed
at the time that there could be a secret cache of fuel, at least enough for
a year, standing by. According to IAEA research, Syria possesses up to 50
tons of natural uranium, enough material for three to five bombs once the
enrichment procedure is completed.
The Institute for Science and International Security in Washington D.C.
likewise has strong indications for the existence of such stockpiles and
expressed its concern in September 2013. "This large stock of natural
uranium metal poses nuclear proliferation risks," the institute wrote. "It
could be obtained by organizations such as Hezbollah or al-Qaida or
undeclared nuclear programs of states such as Iran."
According to findings of Western intelligence agencies, however, the
situation is much more explosive than previously assumed. Based on documents
that SPIEGEL has in its possession, the agencies are convinced that Assad is
continuing in his efforts to build the bomb.
Analysts say that the Syrian atomic weapon program has continued in a
secret, underground location. According to information they have obtained,
approximately 8,000 fuel rods are stored there. Furthermore, a new reactor
or an enrichment facility has very likely been built at the site -- a
development of incalculable geopolitical consequences.
Some of the uranium was apparently hidden for an extended period at Marj
as-Sultan near Damascus, a site that the IAEA likewise views with suspicion.
Satellite images from December 2012 and February 2013 show suspicious
activity at Marj as-Sultan. The facility, located not far from a Syrian army
base, had become the focal point of heavy fighting with rebels. Government
troops had to quickly move everything of value. They did so, as intelligence
officials have been able to reconstruct, with the help of Hezbollah, the
radical Shiite "Party of God" based in Lebanon. The well-armed militia,
which is largely financed by Iran, is fighting alongside Assad's troops.
Intelligence agency findings indicate that the material was moved to a
well-hidden underground location just west of the city of Qusayr, not even
two kilometers from the border with Lebanon. They managed the move just in
time. Marj as-Sultan ultimately did fall to the rebels, but has since been
retaken by government troops.
Since then, experts have been keeping a close eye on the site outside of
Qusayr, one which they had largely ignored before, believing it to be a
conventional Hezbollah weapons depot. Analysts compared earlier satellite
images and carefully noted even the slightest of changes. Soon, it became
clear to them that they had happened upon an extremely disconcerting
According to intelligence agency analysis, construction of the facility
began back in 2009. The work, their findings suggest, was disguised from the
very beginning, with excavated sand being disposed of at various sites,
apparently to make it more difficult for observers from above to tell how
deeply they were digging. Furthermore, the entrances to the facility were
guarded by the military, which turned out to be a necessary precaution. In
the spring of 2013, the region around Qusayr saw heavy fighting. But the
area surrounding the project in the mines was held, despite heavy losses
suffered by elite Hezbollah units stationed there.
The most recent satellite images show six structures: a guard house and five
sheds, three of which conceal entrances to the facility below. The site also
has special access to the power grid, connected to the nearby city of
Blosah. A particularly suspicious detail is the deep well which connects the
facility with Zaita Lake, four kilometers away. Such a connection is
unnecessary for a conventional weapons cache, but it is essential for a
But the clearest proof that it is a nuclear facility comes from radio
traffic recently intercepted by a network of spies. A voice identified as
belonging to a high-ranking Hezbollah functionary can be heard referring to
the "atomic factory" and mentions Qusayr. The Hezbollah man is clearly
familiar with the site. And he frequently provides telephone updates to a
particularly important man: Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic
The Hezbollah functionary mostly uses a codename for the facility: "Zamzam,"
a word that almost all Muslims know. According to tradition, Zamzam is the
well God created in the desert for Abraham's wife and their son Ishmael. The
well can be found in Mecca and is one of the sites visited by pilgrims
making the Hajj. Those who don't revere Zamzam are not considered to be true
North Korean Expert in Syria?
Work performed at the site by members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard is also
mentioned in the intercepted conversations. The Revolutionary Guard is a
paramilitary organization under the direct control of Iran's Supreme Leader
Ali Khamenei. It controls a large part of the Iranian economy and also plays
a significant role in Iran's own nuclear activities. Not all of its missions
abroad are cleared with the government of moderate President Hassan Rohani.
The Revolutionary Guard is a state within a state.
Experts are also convinced that North Korea is involved in Zamzam as well.
Already during the construction of the Kibar facility, Ibrahim Othman worked
closely together with Chou Ji Bu, an engineer who built the nuclear reactor
Yongbyon in North Korea.
Chou was long thought to have disappeared. Some thought that he had fallen
victim to a purge back home. Now, though, Western intelligence experts
believe that he went underground in Damascus. According to the theory,
Othman never lost contact with his shady acquaintance. And experts believe
that the new nuclear facility could never have been built without North
Korean know-how. The workmanship exhibited by the fuel rods likewise hints
at North Korean involvement.
What approach will now be taken to Zamzam? How will the West, Assad and
Syria's neighbors react to the revelations?
The discovery of the presumed nuclear facility will not likely be welcomed
by any of the political actors. It is an embarrassment for everybody. For
Syria and North Korea, both of which have periodically sought to shed their
images as international pariahs. For Hezbollah, which hopes to emerge as
Lebanon's strongest political power.
A New Assessment
But the new development also comes at an uncomfortable time for the US
government. Despite all official denials, Washington is currently operating
in the region more-or-less in concert with Assad in the fight against the
Islamist terrorist militia Islamic State. Furthermore, following the
well-monitored and largely efficient destruction of Syrian chemical weapons,
the US, Britain and France all believed that Assad's ability to wage
unconventional warfare had been eliminated. The possible development of a
Syrian atomic weapon, should it be confirmed, would necessarily lead to a
new assessment of the situation.
The discovery presents a particularly difficult dilemma to Israel. The
country has, to be sure, continued to bomb Hezbollah supply lines, but it
apparently knew nothing of a possible new nuclear facility. Israeli leaders
would be faced with the impossible decision between ignoring Zamzam or
undertaking an extremely risky attack against a facility built deep
underground. In contrast to 2007, bunker buster bombs would be required,
with unforeseeable consequences for the environment. It would be an
irresponsible decision, but one which Israeli hardliners could ultimately
The international monitors in Vienna also don't look good, with IAEA boss
Yukiya Amano having been deceived by Assad. In September 2014, the Japanese
national urged "Syria to cooperate fully with the agency in connection with
all unresolved issues." He hasn't yet received a reply. A sanction of last
resort would be that of expelling Syria from the IAEA, an unlikely step
given that Moscow continues to protect Assad, in the IAEA as in the United
Islamic State recently invited IAEA inspectors to investigate in areas under
their control. The terror organization conquered the area around Deir al-Zor
several months ago and offered the IAEA the opportunity to have another look
around the Kibar facility. But the Vienna-based organization declined, not
wanting to provide Islamic State with any kind of legitimacy.
Plus, Deir al-Zor is no longer the focal point. The international experts in
Vienna now find themselves confronted with new challenges across the country
on the border with Lebanon.