The Cable

State Department: Syria must answer questions about secret nuclear program

While the world grapples with Syria's apparent use of chemical weapons, there are still lingering unanswered questions about the Syrian regime's secret nuclear program, a top State Department official said Monday.

Israel attacked a partially constructed nuclear reactor inside Syria in September, 2007, destroying it before it became operational. The reactor was based on a model used by North Korea to produce its stockpile of nuclear fuel. In 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that the site struck by Israeli planes was a nuclear reactor in construction that was never declared to the IAEA, which constitutes a violation of Syria's obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The matter was referred to the U.N. Security Council, but no further action was taken.

On Monday Tom Countryman, the assistant secretary of state for international security and non-proliferation, told the NPT conference in Geneva that Syria has still not addressed international concerns about its nuclear program and must do so immediately.

"With regard to Syria, it has been nearly two years since IAEA Director General Amano reported that the facility destroyed in 2007 at Deir Ez-Zour was ‘very likely a nuclear reactor that should have been declared to the agency pursuant to Syria's safeguards agreement," Countryman said. "To date, Syria has not taken any concrete steps to address the outstanding serious questions about its clandestine nuclear activities."

Countryman has been intimately involved with the Syrian WMD issue since the crisis broke out in 2011. He has helped lead the effort to organize Syria's neighbors to respond to the potential use of WMD inside Syria and to help secure Syrian weapons sites if and when the Assad regime falls.

But the ongoing civil war in Syria does not prevent Syria from telling the international community about the status of its secret nuclear program, he said.

"The Assad regime's brutal campaign of violence against the Syrian people and the resulting unrest cannot be an excuse for not cooperating with the IAEA. Syria remains obligated to remedy its noncompliance immediately and demonstrate a constructive approach in its relations with the IAEA and the international community," Countryman said. "Noncompliance should be a matter of serious concern to NPT parties. As agreed in the 2010 Action Plan, it is vitally important that all NPT parties support the resolution of all cases of noncompliance with IAEA safeguards and other nonproliferation requirements. The Treaty and the regime can only be as strong as the parties' will to uphold the Treaty's integrity."

Countryman also called for a new effort to create a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. That idea, which was supposed to result in a conference in Helsinki in 2012, has been stalled over several issues, including whether Israel, which has a suspected nuclear weapons stockpile of over 100 weapons, would be included. Countryman called on the states in the region to come up with a way to move the issue forward.

"We missed an important deadline -- but we have not yet missed the opportunity to transform the security environment of the region. In fact, unprecedented diplomatic efforts continue to be directed at making the conference a reality," he said. "We remain prepared to assist in any way requested, but leadership must also come from the states of the region. They will be responsible for the big idea -- creating the political and security conditions that would make a WMD-free zone an achievable concept. And they need to start now by showing creative thinking on a scale that is smaller, but big enough to get us to the first step, to Helsinki."

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