'Syria Building Nuclear Facility with Help from Iran, North Korea'.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has apparently not given up on his nuclear ambitions, despite the Syrian civil war which has been raging in his country for nearly four years. According to a Friday report by the German magazine Der Spiegel, Syria is building a secret nuclear facility in the mountains near the Lebanese border, with Iranian and North Korean assistance.
Syria's previous nuclear reactor in the northeastern Deir ez-Zor region was destroyed in 2007 in what foreign media reports alleged was an Israeli air strike. Citing Western intelligence reports, Der Spiegel said that Israel was unaware of the secret facility. Analysts believe that Syria had continued working on its nuclear program after the 2007 strike, using top-secret underground compounds.
The facility, believed to be located near the town of Qusair, some 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away from the Syria-Lebanon border, reportedly holds 8,000 fuel rods, and is also believed to house an enrichment facility or nuclear reactor as well. The report further cited an International Atomic Energy Agency report saying Syria "possesses up to 50 tons of natural uranium, enough material for three to five [nuclear] bombs once the enrichment procedure is completed."
Recent satellite imagery shows six different sites in the area: One is a guard house, and three of the other five structures have entrances to what is believed to be a series of underground facilities. The site has special access to electricity and water. The magazine cited intercepted conversations between an operative from the Lebanese Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah and Syrian Atomic Energy Commission head Ibrahim Othman, in which the former refers to the site as the "atomic factory," and mentions Qusair.
Iranian Revolutionary Guard experts had contributed to the construction of the site, and according to the report "experts believe that the new nuclear facility could never have been built without North Korean know-how. The workmanship exhibited by the fuel rods likewise hints at North Korean involvement."
According to Der Spiegel, part of the secret Syrian uranium stockpile was hidden in the Marj as-Sultan facility 15 kilometers (9 miles) north of Damascus, a site which the IAEA had wanted to investigate and found it suspicious.
As the Syrian Civil War raged on and Syrian rebels attacked a regime base near the Marj as-Sultan, it was decided to evacuate the facility and transport its contents, with close aid from Hezbollah fighters. The site fell to the rebels short afterwards, and the material was moved to the new location near Qusair.
Western intelligence first believed the Qusair site was a Hizbullah weapons depot. But close observation led to the conclusion that a nuclear site was being built there secretly since 2009.