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Nuclear Potholes on the Road to Damascus

By Judith MillerWriter/Manhattan InstituteFOX News Contributor

The road to Damascus is apparently filled with both promise and potholes. After a senior American diplomat met Thursday with Syria's ambassador to Washington at the State Department, Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha described the two-hour session with Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman as "positive and constructive."

But administration officials, starting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself, were more cautious. It was "too soon to say what the future holds," Mrs. Clinton said, when asked today whether the meeting -- the highest level since the envoy was called in last April to discuss intelligence related to Israel's bombing of an alleged undeclared Syrian nuclear facility in 2007 -- signaled a thaw in the famously strained Syrian-American ties. Although Ms. Clinton spoke while the meeting was in progress, a State Department spokesman said after the session that the meeting, which he did not characterize as either positive or constructive, was "an opportunity to discuss possibilities in bilateral relations and raise issues of concern that each side has." And he made a point of noting that Feltman, a former ambassador to Lebanon who had been a vocal champion of that beleaguered country's independence from big brotherly Syria, met with "many officials in the course of his duties." Among them, he pointed out, was a meeting today with the commander of Lebanon's armed forces, to "assure him of U.S. support for Lebanon."

That was obviously a none-too-subtle warning that the Obama Administration wanted Syria to stop meddling in Lebanon's affairs. Syrian forces, of course, were in Lebanon for nearly 30 years, and withdrew in the spring of 2005 only after over a million and a half Lebanese protested against the Syrian regime's suspected role in the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri in Feburary of that year -- protests known as the "Cedar Revolution." Lebanese have long worried that an Obama administration, which pledged duirng the campaign and as president-elect to renew dipolomatic ties with Syria, might sacrifice Lebanon's intrests in exchange for, say, Syrian help on the Israeli-Palestinian peace front, or in promoting stability in Iraq, or in distancing itself from its close alliance with Iran. Syria has also long supported the militant Shiite Hezbollah, which is poised to do well in national elections this June, and the equally militant but Sunni Muslim group Hamas, both of which Washington sees as terrorist groups.

The Americans were clearly cautious at the meeting today, despite what must have been many cups of coffee. A Syrian official said that there had been a change in substance and tone from Amb. Moustapha's last meeting at the State Department last April duirng the Bush Administration. "Last time, they spoke at us. This time, there was no list of demands, no dictation," he said. "Each side listened to the other's concerns."But even Amb. Moustapha acknowledged that he and Mr. Feltman had not discussed the return of a US ambassador to Damascusor whether Mrs. Clinton would meet with Syria 's foreign ministerat the Gaza Donors conference which both are scheduled to attend in Egypt on March 2nd. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had specifically pressed for the top American envoy's return in an interview with a British newspaper last week. The meeting at Foggy Bottom ended today, as so many meetings there do, with an agreement to meet again. Specifically when and where was left diplomatically vague, which, given the pressures on both sides, must have been seen by some officials in Damascus and Washington as a virtue.The American list of concers about Syria also includedSyria's continue stonewalling of requests from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency for greater access to and information about Syrian nuclear activities. Last Thursday, the IAEA issued a three-page report disputing Syria's official explanations for why traces of low enriched uranium were found at the site near Dair Alzour that Israel had bombed. The agency also scored Damascus for failing to provide information it had requested.Click here to view the report.
A United Nations tribunal on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri -- which many Lebanese have blamed on Syria -- starts March 1st. And the Obama administration must also decide when to send an ambassador to the embassy in Damascus, who was withdrawn in 2005 in the wake of that assassination.
In September, 2007 Israeli warplanes obliterated what Israel later claimed was a North-Korean-supported nuclear reactor known as Al-Kibar. After being shown Israeli evidence, Washington officials charged that the facility was a reactor which, when completed, could have made fuel for nuclear bombs. Outraged, Syria claimed that the site was a conventional military installation that had nothing to do with nuclear weapons or atomic energy. It also let the atomic inspection agency visit the site and take samples there. When the IAEA reported last year it had found traces of uranium at the site, Syria claimed they had probably come from the shells of the Israeli-dropped bombs, as uranium is sometimes used in bombs to destroy hardened targets. Click here to view last year's report. But in its report last week, the IAEA concluded there was a "low probability" that the uranium traces had come from Israeli bombs. The chemical composition of the tiny particles found at the site, the agency wrote, were "all inconsistent with what would be expected from the use of uranium based munitions." In addition, not only had more uranium particles been found, the IAEA reported, the tiny specks were "of a type not included in Syria's declared inventory of nuclear material." In other words, the uranium was not likely to have come from the research reactor that Syria told the IAEA was part and parcel of its peaceful nuclear energy program. In fact, U.N. officials told Greg Webb, of Global Security Newswire, among others, the particles found at the destroyed site contained graphite. This appears to strengthen Israeli and American claims that Al-Kabir was a nearly complete reactor -- designed with North Korean help -- to produce plutonium for weapons. North Korea's reactor at Yongbyon, is fueled by natural uranium and moderated with graphite. "What this means," said Jacqueline Shire, a nuclear expert with the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, a private nuclear monitoring group, "is that the IAEA is discrediting Syria's official explanation. It's saying that the presence of uranium particles is not explained by Syria's claim." The agency also complains in its report that Syria still has not provided "additional information and supporting documentation about the past use and nature of the building at the Dair Alzour site," and information about its "procurement activities." The report also noted that Syria was still denying its inspectors access to a water plant and other sites that must be surveyed "for the Agency to complete its assessment." In an interview, a Syrian official said that while Damascus had invited the IAEA to take samples at the site and had answered many questions about the nature of the facility and its activities, Syria had to be cautious about IAEA demands for greater access and information because Israel and other states were now trying to use the agency to "gather more information about Syrian military installations and operations." "We're technically still at war with Israel. So we're not going to play this game. But we have cooperated in the past," he said, "and we're now considering all our options." The nuclear "flapette" comes at a particularly delicate time. A United Nations tribunal on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri -- which many Lebanese have blamed on Syria -- starts March 1st. And the Obama administration must also decide when to send an ambassador to the embassy in Damascus, who was withdrawn in 2005 in the wake of that assassination. In an interview late last week with the Guardian, a British newspaper, Syrian President Bashar Assad said he hoped that relations between the two states would improve and called upon Washington to send its ambassador back soon. Team Obama has recently made diplomatic gestures aimed at easing sanctions that were imposed by the Bush administration to punish Damascus for allowing foreign fighters to cross into Iraq and for its support of Hamas, Hezbollah, and other designated terrorist groups. Specifically, the administration recently agreed to provide spare parts for two Syrian-owned Boeing 747 aircraft that had been out of service for years -- on safety ground -- an Obama spokesman was quick to explain. But last week, the Treasury Department permitted some $500,000 to be transferred to a Syrian charity, another exception to the sanctions regime. Imad Mustapha, Syria's ambassador to the U.S., said both moves were aimed at easing America's economic embargo on his country. American congressional delegations have also been visiting Damascus after a long diplomatic drought. Last Wednesday, Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), delivered a fairly tough message when he met with President Assad, saying that relations could only improve if Syria changed its ways. But Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after his meeting last Saturday that there were possibilities for "real cooperation" between the two nations, calling his discussion with Syria's young leader, "long," "candid," and "open." David Schenker, a former Pentagon official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he did not think that Syria's nuclear stone-walling would stop Obama's planned diplomatic thaw. "While the IAEA report doesn't make it any easier," he said, "the administration can always argue that its outreach is aimed at helping resolve obstacles like this."

Judith Miller, a Fox News contributor, is an award-winning writer and author. She spent 85 days in jail in the Alexandria Detention Center in Virginia in 2005 to protect confidential sources. She is the author of a forthcoming memoir.