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Alleged Syria-North Korea Nuclear Cooperation Raises Questions

U.S. intelligence officials last week outlined details of what they said was North Korean nuclear assistance to Syria. Syria has denied U.S. allegations that it was running a covert nuclear weapons program or that it was getting help from Pyongyang. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the timing of the revelations has raised questions about the motivation for their release.

Alleged North Korean nuclear cooperation with Syria is not exactly fresh news. After a secret Israeli air strike destroyed a facility in Syria last September, Andrew Semmel, the top State Department official for nonproliferation, said publicly that the United States was concerned about nuclear activity in Syria and suggested Damascus was getting help from Pyongyang. When speaking to reporters off the record other officials were even more specific.

However, intelligence officials only briefed members of Congress in detail about it last week. And, in a surprising move for the usually secret intelligence community, they also briefed selected members of the media.

Semmel, now retired, says he is puzzled that it took so long to reveal the information since Congress has been pressing for details of Syria's activity since the Israeli raid.

"Congress has been pressing the administration,and others have been, too, to come clean on this or to come out some more with a little bit more information. And at this point in time maybe the feeling was, 'maybe' is the key word here, maybe the feeling was that somehow or another the intelligence community and others could not keep the lid on it any more, so they wanted to go out, I'm putting a positive spin on this, by the way, so there would be no major distortions of what actually happened, he said."

Semmel, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation Policy, says the message of the revelations could have been targeted at one or several countries.

"The calculation may very well have been that there are multiple positives to this, message to Iran, message certainly to Syria, message to North Korea, et cetera. What puzzles me is why we waited until now to even inform the International Atomic Energy Agency. It seems to me that if we wanted the I.A.E.A. to play a positive role as a neutral monitor of the situation that we would have shared that information with them, perhaps discreetly, much earlier," said Simmel/

The I.A.E.A., which is the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, was only briefed by U.S. officials last week. Semmel says that when he raised with policymakers the idea of notifying the I.A.E.A., he was rebuffed.

"This was so tightly held that one didn't know whether in fact we were or not sharing that with the I.A.E.A. Some of us even at my fairly senior level raised the question in our limited circle. And basically there was no response, this is not for discussion. It was really a bizarre policy issue," he added.

Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-born specialist on Middle East affairs at the U.S. National Defense University, says the revelations could be aimed at getting leverage with North Korea in the six-party talks over its own nuclear program. He also thinks that they might be aimed at undercutting any potential deal between Israel and Syria over Israel's holding of the Golan Heights.

"There is a history, of course, of apparently the Bush Administration not wanting Israel to engage with the Syrians, wanting to isolate the Syrians totally. And on the other hand, again, those elements in the administration have for a long time apparently not wanted North Korea to get off as easily, they say, as this on their nuclear activities. And so both really make sense to me. Which one has more weight, I'm not really sure. They are both very plausible," he said.

Jouejati also says that while Syria possesses some chemical and biological weapons capability, it has neither the money nor the infrastructure for a costly nuclear venture.