The Israeli "Nuclear Reactor" Strike and Syrian Weapons of Mass Destruction
October 24, 2007
The circumstances surrounding an Israeli strike on what may have been a Syrian nuclear reactor are still unclear. It is not yet certain that Syria was building a reactor, and if it were, what capacity it would have for producing fissile material, when it might have produced enough material for a weapon, and how Syria planned to deploy any nuclear capability it developed. Major questions remain about the level of North Korean support Syria did or did not receive, and about the level of Syrian-Iranian cooperation if any.
The attached analsyis shows, however, that several things that are clear about Syria's position, and puts any Syrian nuclear efforts in context. In brief:
• Syria has fallen far behind Israel in conventional capability and has no practical chance of catching up.
• Syrian capabilities for asymmetric warfare, and the its ability to use allies like the Hezbollah, can irritate or provoke Israel, but not defeat it or deter it from using its massive supremacy in long-range precision strike capability.
• Syrian chemical and possible biological capabilities do not give it a meaningful deterrent to Israel, do not rival Israel's status as a nuclear power, and might do more to justify an Israeli use of nuclear weapons in retaliation than achieve strategic benefits.
• The Syrian air force is approaching obsolescence as a force, although Syria has some “modern aircraft.” Syria lacks the mix of airborne and ground-based sensor and battle management assets, the mix of munitions, IS&R assets, and sortie sustainability it needs to compete. It faces de facto air supremacy from the Israeli air force.
• Missiles are Syria's only way of striking at Israel with some confidence of success, but Syria still faces steadily more effective Israeli ballistic missile defenses, plus Israeli ability to target and destroy Syria's larger missile systems with Israel's precision strike assets.
Seen from this perspective, a Syrian effort to achieve a “break out” by covertly developing nuclear weapons has a kind of logic. It would provide Syria with the status it now lacks, and a potential level of ultimate deterrence that its existing weapons of mass destruction cannot provide. It would give the Syrian regime increased status, and at least symbolically compensate for Syria's growing inferiority in conventional warfighting capability. Syria might at least possibly see nuclear status as a major negotiating lever making Israel more willing to give up the Golan.
At the same time, some aspects of such a Syrian effort raise serious questions as to whether Syria really could have believed such an effort would succeed, and felt it could benefit from the end result if it did. A surface-built reactor could not be kept secret over time. Israel would certainly have acquired knowledge of the Syrian program long before a reactor was completed and could start producing fissile material. This raises serious questions as to why Syria would have taken the risk of building light water reactor above ground and especially in a structure that seems to have been similar to North Korean designs. Such actions were almost an invitation to Israel to strike.
Political symbolism is one thing. Warfighting is another. Like Iran, Syria is much bigger than Israel. Like Iran, however, its population is hyperurbanized and at least as vulnerable as Israel's. Syria's leadership and economy is heavily concentrated in a small number of targets. Syria would probably only have fission weapons versus Israel's “boosted” and probable thermonuclear weapons, and Israel could probably inflict at least an order of magnitude more damage on Syria with each nuclear strike.
It seems almost certain that it would take Syria half a decade or more of effort to build up a survivable nuclear-armed missile force. It would be highly vulnerable in the process, and then would still be much more vulnerable than Israel in any countervalue exchange in spite of the different size of the two countries. Israel would also retain a major conventional counterforce strike capability, even if it did not preempt Syria.