One of the unique features of the AlKibar (Dair Alzour) probable-reactor site is that it is located near a (somewhat offbeat) tourist attraction. I even joked that a visit “seems like a good use of my grant money.”
I didn’t expect one of you to actually do it. A reader, on a visit to Syria, took a day trip to Halabiye. He has decided to share his observations and photographs:
As you might know, close to the reactor there is an old Byzantine fortress called Halabiye (Frank Pabian mentioned it in his presentation). Tourists only seldom visit Halabiye, but still some travel-guides mention it, so a visit to the fortress was not too obvious. I tried to see how close I could get to the reactor, in the end I was 1.5 km away. This whole area is really, really far off and lies about 60-70 km away from Deir ez-Zour, which also is seldom visited by tourists. Every Syrian I told I was going to Deir ez-Zour immediately asked why I would want to visit such an ugly “$#&%hole”. After all it is a six hours drive from Damascus and a three hours drive from Palmyra. On holidays lot of Syrians villagers picnic near the fortress. As they apparently had never seen a foreigner before, I quickly became the attraction of the day.
So here my impressions and thoughts on the Al Kibar site:
First let me state, that I think it indeed was a nuclear reactor. I know many people question this and their main argument is that the site is not defended in any way.
This notion is wrong. There are simply no visible defenses. Actually the area is so far off that little defenses are necessary, climbing up the cliffs there is extremely exhausting, difficult and takes a long time. I almost fell twice when climbing up the hill of the castle. Security forces would have plenty of time to thwart any “misguided” hikers. Ten soldiers or so garrisoned inside the canyon and some light barriers would be more than enough to keep away any any intruders.
Additionally I can confirm that the site is defended even if a bit differently than people would expect. There were three men simply hanging around next to the bridge. Our taxi driver offered to take us across the bridge to photograph the castle from the other side (where the reactor is located). Then suddenly those guys approached our driver who told us: “Wait I will do this for you”
They started questioning him with one of them taking out a small book to take notes. When we were going further down the bridge to the other side of the river our always amiable driver asked us aggressively “What do you want there? There is nothing there”. That was the only time he talked to us in such a manner. My friend and I took three pictures on which those suspicious guys are visible — the one tying his shoes was the guy who took out his notebook. They monitored us very closely until we went back to Deir Ez Zour.
In my opinion all of that really makes sense, the Syrians would never be able to stop a concentrated Israeli attack on a pin point target. Hiding it was the only way to go. Of course that was a big gamble, which they lost. Putting an old Russian SAM next to it, which would have been eliminated in a matter of minutes anyway would have been the most stupid thing to do. Constructing a SAM station anywhere is like painting “here is an important installation” in big red letters into the desert for all satellites to see, especially in such a remote region.
The pumping station (above) seems to be somewhat hidden, too. A big earthen wall makes it impossible to see it from the ground. The fortress is situated on a big hill and you can inescapably view the pumping station from the top of it, even if from a distance of two kilometers. I did photograph it, unfortunately the weather was rather misty making the picture a little blurred. I was lucky enough to capture a man standing behind the pumping station, he gives a clear indication of the size of the building. When considering the earthen wall hides the lower part, it also gets clear how tall the building actually is. (Editor’s note: The man is the dark speck to the viewer’s left of the building.)
Another point is the position of the building itself. I photographed a different canyon (above) behind the castle. The canyon where the reactor was located probably looked similar before construction started. Flattening the ground and lying the foundations for such a giant building like an reactor is a major task which simply would not make sense for a normal construction. There is more than enough free, even space right next to the Euphrates only two kilometers down the river (where the cement factory, pictured below,is located)
This is also why the “water treatment” plant is suspicious to me. Why build such a plant kilometers away when there is enough space right next to the river and right next to the main road? Laying kilometers of water pipes in Syria’s hottest region is no fun either. But who knows perhaps the Syrian’s converted this facility into a real water treatment plant later on.
There are some ruins on the other side of the Euphrates (the reactor side) but our driver stated he could not pass the river over that very rickety pontoon bridge. The bridge, despite being partially made of wood, can carry cars, however. I photographed a van crossing it, interestingly with a “Danger” sign on it (below). Apparently it was forbidden only for us.
There seems to be a frequent truck traffic to the cement factory, so steady supply of the reactor using trucks would not be noticeable. In fact, I recall that Frederick Forsyth, in The Fist of God (his novel about Saddam getting the bomb), describes an asphalted road and a steady flow of trucks asthe most pressing problem when concealing a nuclear factory (in The Fist of God, the Iraqis disguise the plant as a car dump).
A lot of people claim the photos from the briefing could have been taken anywhere but the whole atmosphere and colors were just spot on. OK, I know this argument is anything but objective, but the photos of the presentation and my travel pictures correspond rather well (see the screenshot).
Another major claim of skeptics is the lack of support structures. Syria has an history of underground sites. And more important, why should such structures have to be 10m away from the reactor? In the age of fiber optics control stations could be placed kilometers away. Even storage sites could be placed far away, due to the many lorries there transports to the reactor would hardly be noticeable. It again reminded me of Forsythe. In The Fist of God, analysts don’t recognize a nuclear factory as such because its facilities are placed so far apart. I photographed a vast building which looked a little out of place, because of its tower-like structures and sheer size. The inscriptions says “workshop for gypsum and decor”. Of course, it could be just that but still one should not discard the idea the Syrians may have “outsourced” some of the necessary structures to buildings like this one or the alleged water treatment plant.
There seems to be a lot of cooperation with the DPRK in general. In Damascus I once saw a North Korean delegation (above), which I unfortunately could only photograph from behind. I tried to ask a colleague, but he said the subject was not appropriate to discuss.
[Note: I asked “Why did you conclude the Asian men were from the DPRK?” Our reader responded: “The guy in the uniform walked past me very closely. I could see a Kim Il Sung pin, which North Koreans are obliged to wear, on his chest.”]
I hasten to add that I take the photographer at his word; the pictures certainly look accurate.
I made text and image edits where necessary to avoid making trouble for certain people. Which brings me to a very important point:
I want to discourage, in the strongest possible terms, readers from doing anything illegal or that might otherwise endanger yourself, your host or people around you. Many governments have no sense of proportion when it comes to the line between what is innocent behavior in a free society — taking pictures of public events; using your intellect to draw conclusions — and espionage. Recent events in Iran and North Korea demonstrate this too clearly for my taste.
So, please don’t go taking silly risks. We can leave that to the professionals.