Israeli strike inside Syria reignites debate over nuclear ambitions

first_imgWASHINGTON – U.S. concerns about ties between Syria and North Korea have long focused on a partnership involving missiles and missile technology. Even many hawks within the Bush administration have expressed doubts that the Syrians have the money or technical depth to build a serious nuclear program like the one in Iran. But the Sept. 6 Israeli airstrike inside Syria has reignited debate over whether the Syrians are trying to overcome past obstacles by starting their own small nuclear program, or by trying to buy nuclear components from an outside supplier. It is a particularly difficult question for U.S. spy agencies, which are still smarting from the huge prewar misjudgments made about the status of Iraq’s weapons programs. U.S. officials are now sorting through what they say are Israel’s private claims that what their jets struck was tied to nuclear weapons activity, not merely to missile production. So far, U.S. officials have been extremely cautious about endorsing the Israeli conclusion. Syria’s efforts to bolster its missile arsenal have been a source of worry for Israel for years, especially given Syria’s track record of arming Hezbollah fighters when they clash with Israeli troops. During the summer of 2006, Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group, rained hundreds of missiles on targets inside Israel from Lebanon, surprising Israeli officials with the sophistication of its arsenal. And North Korean engineers are long believed to have helped Syria develop a sophisticated class of Scud missiles that have a longer range and are more accurate than earlier versions. According to GlobalSecurity.org, a defense research organization, North Korea has helped Syria develop the Scud-D missile, with a range of about 435 miles. Whether Syria is actively pursuing a nuclear program has been the subject of fierce debate in Washington for several years. The dispute was at the center of the fight in 2005 over the nomination of John R. Bolton to become ambassador to the United Nations. At the time, several intelligence officials said they had clashed in 2002 and 2003 with Bolton, then an undersecretary of state, about the extent of Syria’s unconventional weapons programs. According to the officials, Bolton wanted to include information in a public speech about a Syrian nuclear program that could not be corroborated by intelligence agencies. In recent interviews, Bolton has suggested that the Israeli strike may have vindicated his view. Yet that is hard to assess, since whatever information a few senior officials in Washington and Jerusalem possess has been so restricted that two senior Asian diplomats, representing close U.S. allies who are frequently updated on North Korea, said late this week that they had received no useful information from their U.S. counterparts. On Thursday, President George W. Bush declined three times to shed any light on the Israeli strike, although he did repeat a warning to North Korea. It is unclear to what extent the secrecy about the Israeli strike has been motivated by U.S. doubts about the intelligence or by an effort to protect sources and classified information. But U.S. officials are now looking at the possibility that the Syrians saw an opportunity to buy some of the basic components of a nuclear program on the cheap, perhaps because North Korea is trying to get elements of its nuclear program out of the country to meet deadlines in an agreement with Washington.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img

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