Syria, N. Korea Nuclear Briefing

Arms Control Wonk’s got the video presentation made to the House and Senate intel committees on Syria’s Al Kabir facility. To a layman, it makes a pretty convincing, if entirely circumstantial, case for the claim that the facility was a nuclear reactor, although questions remain, which means I’ll be checking back in with the gang at ACW for further updates. Here’s what Jeffrey Lewis had to say yesterday:

Assuming the provenance, interpretation and timing are all square, I would think the presumption now shifts to “it was a reactor” — which is not to say that hitting it was a sensible foreign policy decision or that the Six Party process should stall.

The N. Korean tie-in is even more circumstantial, without the kind of elaborate photo documentation that makes as big an impression. That said, travel snapshots of the head of the DPRK’s Yongbyon reactor facilities with anyone, let alone the head of the Syrian nuclear regulatory commission, are always alarming.

ACW’s James Acton wonders why this briefing was made and released now, since it gums up the works of a face-saving arrangement the administration had already signed on to that removed the major obstacles holding up the Six-Party agreement with the DPRK. Acton’s earlier post makes for invaluable reading if you, like me, have trouble following all of the convoluted twists and turns of the negotiations. The short version is that we’ll find out how serious the N. Koreans really are about shuttering their program and complying with the deal sooner rather than later, based on how willing they are to allow verification of their plutonium stocks. It’s unrealistic, though, to expect them to be forthcoming about a proliferation relationship with Syria, so nailing them on it now is curious.

Acton’s question also seems to apply with regards to Syria, which this week revealed an unconfirmed but undenied Israeli “readiness,” transmitted by Turkish PM Tayyip Recep Erdogan, to turn over the Golan Heights as part of an eventual peace deal. It’s common knowledge that the Bush administration has been hostile to Israeli peace feelers towards Damascus. It’s also common knowledge that tensions on the Israeli-Lebanese border are running very high, with much of the Arab media anticipating an imminent outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. So the logic of driving any wedges in the neighborhood right now seems curious.

But as much as, Why now, the question that arises is, What now? Assuming yesterday’s briefing is legit and accurate, it reveals a startling level of both cooperation and insouciance on the part of two hostile regimes. That, in turn, lends support to the argument that diplomatic engagement with either is useless. (The fact that the Israelis are willing to pursue backchannel diplomatic engagement with Syria is an enormous counterargument here.)

So what’s the alternative to diplomatic engagement? The past five years have shown the limits of military intervention as a method of non-proliferation. But given the stakes involved, the threshhold of uncertainty involved with diplomatic non-proliferation methods is less and less acceptable. Pinpoint strikes like the one that took out Al Kabir are an ace in the hole, but what happens when we catch on to a black site too late? And what about friendly nations that opt for a clandestine nuclear program instead of sitting on the sidelines while their strategic rivals make nuclear advances?

It’s fine and good for the presidential candidates to make firm declarations about not letting hostile powers go nuclear. But I’d like to see the worst-case scenarios about managing a thoroughly nuclearized Middle East, because it looks increasingly like that’s the direction we’re headed in.

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