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SYRIA: Mum's the word on nuclear inspections

June 25, 2008 |  8:58 am

Syrian_reactor_before_afterSyrian authorities probably think that it's safer to ignore the big elephant in the room.

That, at least, has been their attitude toward the United Nations nuclear inspectors who arrived to investigate claims that Damascus was secretly developing nuclear facilities.

Not only did Syrian officials keep silent about the visit, the vast majority of local newspapers did not even remotely allude to it and the state-run news agency did not even acknowledge the presence of the international experts.

Others say that foreign journalists have been banned from entering or leaving Syria these days until the inspectors are out of the country.

The International Atomic Energy Agency delegation arrived in Syria on Sunday to inspect a site in the country's northeastern desert. The U.S. alleges the site housed a nuclear reactor nearing completion. Syria had dismissed U.S. accusations about the site of Al-Kibar, which was bombed by Israel in September 2007, as a disused military facility.

The only publication that reacted to U.N. inspections was the privately owned Syrian daily Al-Watan. In a fiery editorial, the newspaper accused the U.S. of holding the nuclear issue as a "sword hanging over" Syria:

The United States is exerting strong pressure so that the reports by the IAEA are written in a way that it can exploit them for political, military and diplomatic reasons… Syria did well by accepting the visit of the IAEA delegation, confirming its will for transparency, peace and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. But in any case the inspection should not drag out as inspections have in Iraq and Iran.

So far, the U.N. nuclear watchdog team, which is scheduled to leave Syria this evening, has remained tight-lipped about its investigation.

So what did the inspectors really find out? The answer to this question will remain shrouded in secrecy for the moment. Some speculation has already surfaced. The United Arab Emirates-based English-language newspaper, The National, today explored possible outcomes of the U.N. investigation:

The nuclear claims have put Syria in a difficult position and it is hard to see Damascus coming out of this matter in better shape than it went in.... Nuclear mud has been thrown at Syria and some will have stuck. Rightly or wrongly, the innuendo will linger. Whatever the IAEA inspectors' findings, this week's inspection will not be the end of the affair.

Meanwhile, some Western media carried intelligence reports claiming cooperation on nuclear weapons research among the so-called pillars of the "axis of evil": North Korea, Syria and Iran. Today's British Guardian, for instance, reported that Israel believes  "Syria was planning to supply Iran with spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing into weapons-grade plutonium from the site it bombed last September," quoting an advisor to Israel's national security council.

The German Der Spiegel magazine went even further, writing on Monday that, based on "intelligence" reports, "Syria has been working alongside North Korea for years to support Iran in the development of a military nuclear program."

But despite mounting pressure on Damascus, the magazine argued that Europeans were opening up to Syria in the hope it might sever its ties to Iran:

Even as pressure increases on Damascus, many Western leaders see a chance that Syrian President Bashar Assad may sever contacts with Iran.... Assad's attitude seems to have become far more conciliatory. As well as allowing in the IAEA team, he has used his contacts with Hamas to persuade the Palestinian militant group to call a six-month cease-fire with Israel in Gaza… Assad's moves are now being rewarded, with the West welcoming anything that would further isolate Tehran.

Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: Satellite photos showing an alleged nuclear site in Syria before and after an Israeli airstrike in September 2007. Credit: U.S. government photo