Stop the ‘Iraniza­tion’ of Syria

The Jerusalem Post - - COMMENT & FEATURES - • By YONAH ALEXANDER and MIL­TON HOENIG (Reuters)

Make no mis­take: the Ira­nian takeover of Syria hap­pen­ing “be­hind the scenes” is well un­der­way. While the world’s at­ten­tion is fo­cused on North Korea, Tehran is prac­tic­ing Sun Tzu’s geopo­lit­i­cal strat­egy that “all war­fare is based on de­cep­tion.” Iran’s prospects for extending its reck­less and dan­ger­ous be­hav­ior in Syria ur­gently re­quire a global re­sponse.

More specif­i­cally, Russia’s an­tic­i­pated mil­i­tary with­drawal from Syria with the ex­pected de­feat of Is­lamic State (ISIS) will cre­ate a vac­uum there that will be filled by Iran. Tehran and the As­sad regime have long had con­tin­u­ous part­ner-like re­la­tions in many ar­eas, in­clud­ing se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion. Fol­low­ing the July 2017 agree­ment be­tween the US and Russia on a cease­fire in south­ern Syria, Iran is now on the precipice of extending its in­flu­ence through­out Syria in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Russia and with the sup­port of Shi’ite rebel forces and Hezbol­lah reach­ing out from Le­banon.

To com­pli­cate mat­ters, North Korea will un­doubt­edly play a role, but the ex­tent can only be an­tic­i­pated. Al­ready, there are signs of co­op­er­a­tion in Syria on po­ten­tial WMD ef­forts that point to a di­rect con­nec­tion be­tween key mil­i­tary or­ga­ni­za­tions in Py­ongyang and Syria’s ac­qui­si­tion of con­ven­tional arms, chem­i­cal weapons and nu­clear and bal­lis­tic mis­sile tech­nol­ogy.

For ex­am­ple, a con­fi­den­tial UN re­port in early Au­gust 2017 re­vealed that two ship­ments from North Korea in the pre­vi­ous six months were in­ter­cepted en route to a Syr­ian govern­ment agency with strong links to the mil­i­tary es­tab­lish­ment, the Sci­en­tific Stud­ies and Re­search Cen­ter (SSRC), un­der a con­tract with Py­ongyang’s key arms ex­porter, the Korea Min­ing De­vel­op­ment Trad­ing Cor­po­ra­tion (KOMID), that re­lated to Syr­ian Scud mis­siles and the main­te­nance of Syr­ian air de­fense sys­tems.

Fur­ther­more, a decade ear­lier, on Septem­ber 6, 2007, Is­raeli planes de­stroyed Syria’s sus­pected nu­clear re­ac­tor at al-Kibar in the Deir ez-Zur re­gion of north­east­ern Syria. This graphite-mod­er­ated re­ac­tor, like the one at Yong­byon in North Korea, was be­ing con­structed by North Korean work­ers and al­legedly was de­signed to pro­duce enough plu­to­nium for one or two bombs an­nu­ally. Iran was also a player and re­port­edly chan­neled a bil­lion dol­lars into the project with the plan to pos­si­bly use the re­ac­tor’s plu­to­nium for weapons. Only later, in 2009, did an In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency (IAEA) re­port re­veal that Syria had been sus­pected of seek­ing to buy “dual use” ma­te­ri­als with North Korean sup­port that could be used in a graphite re­ac­tor in pro­duc­ing plu­to­nium for a nu­clear pro­gram.

Thus, with Iran poised to gain full con­trol and do as it pleases in Syria, it clearly would have many op­tions to ex­tend its WMD-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties there. Now that the 2015 Iran nu­clear deal, the Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Ac­tion (JCPOA), with the US, Russia, Bri­tain, France and Ger­many – has put a crimp in Iran’s nu­clear ac­tiv­i­ties, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity should be alarm­ingly awake to the pos­si­bil­ity, if not high prob­a­bil­ity, that Iran may try to move some for­bid­den nu­clear weapons-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties em­bar­goed un­der the JCPOA to Syria, as well as pur­su­ing ad­vanced bal­lis­tic mis­sile de­vel­op­ment there, in co­op­er­a­tion with North Korea. Al­ready Iran is re­ported to have built a mis­sile fac­tory in Syria.

Syria is a signatory of the Nu­clear Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty (NPT) and as a non-weapons state is sub­ject to IAEA safe­guards on its nu­clear ac­tiv­i­ties to as­sure that they are only for peace­ful pur­poses. But un­der Iran’s in­flu­ence, that may not stop Syria from pur­su­ing un­ac­cept­able nu­clear ac­tiv­i­ties clan­des­tinely.

NPT mem­ber­ship did not stop Iran from pur­su­ing a nu­clear pro­gram of “Pos­si­ble Mil­i­tary Di­men­sions,” as spelled out in a Novem­ber 2011 IAEA re­port. Some of these PMD’s were halted by Iran be­fore the end of 2003, but oth­ers, re­lated to nu­clear weapons de­sign and de­liv­ery, were con­tin­ued un­der less for­mal or­ga­ni­za­tion. A se­lected group of nu­clear weapons de­vel­op­ment ac­tiv­i­ties are specif­i­cally banned in the 2015 JCPOA.

Would the ban on nu­clear weapons de­vel­op­ment placed on Iran by pro­vi­sions of the JCPOA and the re­stric­tions on ura­nium en­rich­ment cover ac­tiv­i­ties car­ried out un­der Ira­nian di­rec­tion in Syria in a co­op­er­a­tive ar­range­ment? More­over, Syria is not a party to the so-called Ad­di­tional Pro­to­col to its safe­guards agree­ment with the IAEA that would al­low IAEA in­spec­tors to look into sus­pi­cious nu­clear ac­tiv­i­ties at any un­de­clared site.

Also, Iran’s con­trol in Syria as a loom­ing out­come of the July 2017 Rus­sian-led cease-fire agree­ment is a threat to Is­rael, which is not sim­ply sit­ting on the side­lines. In­deed, the lat­est Is­raeli air-strike, on Septem­ber 7, 2017, tar­geted and heav­ily dam­aged a SSRC weapons fac­tory in Masyaf in the Hama re­gion of west-cen­tral Syria that de­vel­ops pre­ci­sion guided rock­ets and mis­siles for the Syr­ian army and Hezbol­lah, as well as chem­i­cal weapons for the As­sad regime. Satel­lite images show that at least five ma­jor build­ings at the fa­cil­ity were dam­aged in the strike. How the Is­raeli at­tack and threat­ened Syr­ian re­sponse af­fect Ira­nian in­ten­tions re­mains to be seen.

The out­come we de­scribe – a po­ten­tial Ira­nian takeover of Syria – is a scene of great con­cern. It de­mands a height­ened aware­ness of the dan­gers of al­low­ing Iran to take con­trol of Syria in a joint ven­ture with Syria’s Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad. This is not only a mat­ter of ur­gency for the US and Russia. It is one that should be placed im­me­di­ately on the in­ter­na­tional agenda at the UN and else­where.

Yonah Alexander is the di­rec­tor of the In­ter-Univer­sity Cen­ter for Ter­ror­ism Stud­ies and Se­nior Fel­low at Po­tomac In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Stud­ies.

Mil­ton Hoenig is a nu­clear physi­cist and con­sul­tant.

They co-au­thored the books Su­per Ter­ror­ism: Bi­o­log­i­cal, Chem­i­cal, and Nu­clear and The New Ira­nian Lead­er­ship: Ah­madine­jad, Ter­ror­ism, Nu­clear Am­bi­tion, and the Mid­dle East.

A WOMAN walks past election posters of Syria’s Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad along a street in Da­m­as­cus in 2014.

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