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When Syria recently rejected efforts by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect a nuclear facility near al-Kibar in eastern Syria, it was the latest of a series of provocations by Syria, aided by Iran, designed to exert its regional influence amid the ongoing unrest in the Middle East.
The al-Kibar nuclear reactor, built with North Korean assistance, was believed to be nearly operational before it was bombed and destroyed by the Israeli air force in September 2007. Although the Syrians have denied it was a nuclear installation, it has prevented inspection of the al-Kibar facility since 2008 after the IAEA found traces of possessed uranium at the site.
Now, concerns exist that the al-Kibar reactor has been rebuilt and is more advanced than ever. According to a report released by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), satellite images show Syria has built three nuclear facilities in addition to the one destroyed near al-Kibar Those three storage installations near Marj as-Sultan, 15 miles east of Damascus, were confirmed to have equipment in line with “what would be expected in a small uranium conversion facility”
While not directly addressing the ISIS findings, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu preferred to take a more diplomatic route when he said, “I want to make it clear that if Syria strives for peace, it will find a loyal partner in Israel.”
However, Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs, Moshe Ya’alon, was not as hesitant to avoid the real issue. Accusing Syrian President Bashar Assad as a man possessed with “negative intentions,” he pointedly warned: “I hope Assad will not challenge us with provocations of this kind.”
Yet, if anything, Syria seems extremely intent on provoking Israel. Days before the ISIS report was released, two Iranian warships, both armed with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles, crossed through the Suez Canal and headed to the Syrian port of Latakia, marking the first time Iranian warships had crossed the Suez Canal since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Shortly after the ships docked at Latakia, Syria and Iran agreed to participate in joint naval training exercises.
On the same day the naval agreement was announced, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said Russia would fulfill a contractual agreement signed in 2007 and supply Syria with cruise missiles, despite the objections of both Israel and the United States.
Publicly, the appearance of the Iranian warships in Syria was downplayed by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak who said “I don’t like it, but I don’t think that any one of us should be worried by it.” That view was echoed by Moshe Ya’alon: “It certainly does not bode well, but these two ships are not an immediate threat against us.
However, those sentiments were contrasted by one Israeli official who called the move “an Iranian provocation,” adding “When you look at the Middle East, wherever the Iranians weigh in, the situation is never good.” As if to prove his point, the Israelis placed their navy on high alert.
Moreover, others, like Israel’s top Iran expert, Menashe Amir, stressed that Iran’s long-term plan is to establish a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean. With Iran already in possession of over 300 Shahab missiles that can reach any part of Israel from Iran, the deployment of some of those missiles on the two Iranian warships would not only pose a lethal threat to Israel but to all of Europe.
For Syria, its confidence to ratchet up such an aggressive agenda with its Shiite partner Iran can be traced to the fact that it has in recent months been able to be rewarded for its past and present terrorist actions.
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