Given the Bush Administration’s track record, no one ought to have been surprised when much of the Middle East raised a skeptical eyebrow in response to Washington’s claim that the Syrian site bombed by Israeli warplanes in September of 2007 was part of a clandestine nuclear-weapons program. The Israelis kept mum about their reasons for attacking the site, but the U.S. let it be known that the target was a secret nuclear reactor being built with North Korean assistance — a claim that was widely viewed through the prism of false U.S. claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the Bush Administration’s animus toward Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime over its support for Hizballah and Palestinian radical groups, as well as its failure to curb jihadist insurgents crossing into Iraq.
It turns out, however, that the Bush Administration may well have been right about the Syrian site. Diplomats from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) told the press on Monday that the U.N. body’s inspectors found traces of uranium when they inspected the site in June. Apparently, the amounts weren’t large enough to make a definitive conclusion, but the IAEA is putting Syria — which has no publicly declared civilian nuclear program — on the formal agenda for its year-end meeting in late November. Diplomats at the IAEA say the Syrian government, which denies that it was trying to build nuclear weapons, has balked at the agency’s requests for wider inspections.
The findings at the Syrian site have yet to be declared in any official IAEA documentation, but whatever the conclusion of the IAEA’s investigation, the deepening suspicions toward the Assad regime are coming at an increasingly complicated moment in relations between Damascus and Washington. Late last month, U.S. special forces launched a raid into eastern Syria targeting an alleged al-Qaeda weapons smuggler. In response, the Syrian government shut down an American school and cultural center in Damascus, and forced American Fulbright scholars based at Syrian institutions to leave the country. On Sunday, the New York Times reported that the most recent raid was simply one of dozens that had been conducted on Syrian territory by U.S. special forces under secret orders signed by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
The sudden uptick in tension comes at a moment when Syria had begun to appear as one of the bright spots in a troubled region. U.S. officials had acknowledged that Syria had begun to stem the flow of insurgents into Iraq, while last spring, Damascus revealed that it had been holding indirect peace talks with Israel. President Assad, moreover, had said peace in the Middle East was possible within two years, if only the U.S. would sponsor direct talks, and hopes were high that the incoming Obama Administration would do just that.
The news about the secret U.S. raids into Syria and the possibility of a Syrian nuclear weapons program paint a darker picture of just how deep hostility may have run between the U.S. and Syria. “This was a real cold war,” says Andrew J. Tabler, former editor of Syria Today, an English-language magazine in Damascus. “Improving U.S.-Syrian relations could be a lot harder than we thought.”