No smoking gun in Syria

September 19, 2007

On a bridge over the Euphrates River at sundown, neighboring mosques weave a chorus calling Muslims to prayer in Deir Ez Zor, Syria. This destitute, ramshackle oil town on Iraq’s desert frontier seems calm, despite Israel’s recent raid on a military base outside the city to destroy what was alleged to be Syria’s nuclear program.

The Qamishli-Deir Ez Zor highway, which Israel claims is a weapons route for Iraqi insurgents, was also quiet, and there were no building cranes or heavy construction machinery visible in the opposite direction on the road from Deir Ez Zor to Iraq.
At the Syria-Qusayba checkpoint near the Iraq border, I was stopped by the Syrian military. Across the road on the Iraqi side, sounds of U.S. military operations puttered as Blackhawk helicopters flew overhead. “No photos,” said the Syrian military captain. Cameras could draw U.S. sniper fire.
The surrounding terrain is flat barren desert, with visibility extending for miles. It is difficult to see how smugglers, insurgents, or anything that moves could penetrate here. This is also where CNN claimed Israel punched “a big hole in the desert” by attacking North Korean nuclear materials. But the big hole could be in CNN’s story.
As far back as 2002, Charles Duelfer of the United Nations Iraq Survey Group called then U.S. Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton’s nuclear claims against Syria “exaggerated.” It was also the assessment of the CIA. In 2004, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohamed ElBaradei reiterated that there was no evidence Syria had a nuclear program.
After the invasion of Iraq, former U.S. Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner identified charges against Syria as one of 50 false news stories created by Israel and the White House to justify war. “Saddam’s nuclear WMDs moved to Syria” was propaganda he said.
Several days ago, after the attack on Syria, I spoke to Western oil company officials in Deir Ez Zor. One technician told me they routinely monitor radiation as part of the refining process. They registered no heightened levels of nuclear residue in the area as there would have been if the Israelis had hit a North Korean atomic stockpile. Operations and technical foremen put it this way: “The nuclear claims against Syria are pure bull****.”
Clearly, there is no smoking gun in Syria, and thus no mushroom clouds are likely to be seen in the future.