Can Syria avoid sanctions with a U.N. nuclear inspection?

An IAEA team visits the site of an alleged nuclear weapons facility bombed by Israel in September.

By , Correspondent

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    A reactor?: The US says this was where Iran, North Korea, and Syria were doing nuclear weapons research.
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International nuclear detectives are at work in the Syrian sands following American allegations of covert nuclear activity, in a trip that could well determine Syria's international fate.

In Damascus, the inquiry has been met with both a sense of foreboding and cautious optimism. While the country fears Iran-like isolation, it hopes that by opening its doors to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) it can prevent any global sanctions.

"What's driving Syria right now is an anxiety about becoming a pariah," says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.

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According to the US government, the remote desert site in northeastern Syria, which was bombed by Israeli planes last September, was a nuclear facility being built with North Korean assistance. The IAEA placed Syria on its proliferation watch list in April following US photographic evidence showing the construction of an alleged reactor. Syria has granted inspectors access to the area, but it razed the site after it was bombed.

On Sunday, Der Spiegel, a German news weekly, reported that Syria, North Korea, and Iran were jointly developing a nuclear reactor to build weapons-grade plutonium at the location.

The allegations have been fervently denied by Syria – a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – which says the site was a military location with no nuclear activity. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said the evidence was "fabricated 100 percent."

Nonetheless, the IAEA visit comes at a precarious time for Syria and risks undermining recent diplomatic gains after a long period of international condemnation.

Following the Doha agreement in May that temporarily settled Lebanon's internal political disputes, the resumption of Turkish-mediated peace talks with Israel, and most recently the Hamas-Israeli cease-fire, which Syria says it helped broker using influence over Damascus-based Hamas leaders, Syria is slowly breaking out of isolation.

Most significantly, France resumed diplomatic ties and has invited Mr. Assad to Paris in July to attend a Euro-Mediterranean conference and Bastille Day celebrations.

With claims of illicit nuclear activity continuing to swirl over Syria's head however, Syrians are concerned that it could yet become a pariah state like Iran. An editorial in Syria's Al-Watan newspaper Monday said America's nuclear claim is a "sword hanging over Syria ... in what resembles a blackmail policy that might later turn into direct targeting."

It is these fears that prompted Syria, against all expectations, to cooperate with the IAEA, say analysts.

"Iran can afford to thumb their nose at the West because they have so much money coming in from oil that will help insulate them from sanctioning," says Mr. Landis. "Syria doesn't have a cushion like that."

Already suffering severe economic difficulties, the Assad regime, which trades economic provision for domestic legitimacy, can ill-afford international sanctions in addition to those already put in place by the US.

But even as Syria has opened the bombed site to IAEA inspectors, it has maintained a tight grip over proceedings, drawing comparisons to Iran, which in recent years has provided the UN nuclear watchdog only limited access to its nuclear facilities. A request by the IAEA to visit three other sites was denied by Syrian officials, and local and international press have been given no access.

"The reality here is that there's some pretty strong evidence out there about what Syria was doing.... It's important that the IAEA be allowed to fully investigate that facility and any other one that they might find of interest to them," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said last week.

While calling on Syria to show "absolute transparency," IAEA chief Mohamed El Baradei says it is unlikely investigators will discover any evidence so long after the September bombing. He criticized the US and Israel for withholding intelligence from his agency and taking unilateral action against the site.

Syrian government officials say they are confident that they will weather the political storm, which they see as the Bush administration's attempt to scuttle the country's world standing.

"America has tried and tried to put pressures on Syria ... but it is all false," says Suleiman Haddad, chairman of the parliament's foreign affairs committee. "We will not respond to this pressure. We are in full cooperation with the IAEA to prove to the world that Syria has nothing to hide."

Like many Syrian analysts, Mr. Haddad says that Syria will only be able to fully return to the fold once a new American administration comes to power.

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