© 2023 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Getting Rid Of Syria's Chemical Weapons Would Be Difficult


How feasible is the task of taking control of Syria's chemical arsenal? Could the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the body that implements the Chemical Weapons Convention, do it with confidence?

We're going to ask Amy Smithson, who is senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Welcome to the program.

AMY SMITHSON: It's a pleasure to be with you.

SIEGEL: Here's the situation in Syria: An army that is in the throes of a civil war maintains what's believed to be a large arsenal of chemical weapons. They are to be accounted for and taken under international control. What would be the closest precedent, if any, for such a task?

SMITHSON: Actually, this is an unprecedented situation. The closest thing might be the creation of a special inspectorate after the 1991 Gulf War, which was the United Nations Special Commission, which was sent in to disarm Iraq of its nuclear/biological/chemical weapons capabilities, as well as of delivery systems.

SIEGEL: And which, as we learned, actually succeeded in the task, more so than was thought in 2003.

SMITHSON: They don't get nearly as much credit as they deserve for having unmasked Saddam's covert biological weapons program, not to mention the work they did in disarming the chemical arsenal there.

SIEGEL: Well, let's go over some of the challenges that would face international authorities charged with this task. Would it require dozens, hundreds of people, are there such people around who are trained to do it?

SMITHSON: There are such people around who are trained to do it. And many of them work for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, which has an inspector corps of just over 100. These inspectors are already scattered at various places around the world, so it's not like they have a spare complement that they could just diverge to this purpose.

SIEGEL: Let's say we somehow get instant gratification of the treaty in Syria and inspectors are sent in. Presumably, they would count on the Syrian government's honesty in providing some accounting of where all the weapons are.

SMITHSON: Oh, beware, beware 'cause already the Assad government has not told the truth about its chemical weapons program and has denied using chemical weapons. We know from previous examples, Saddam Hussein who submitted a number of false declarations to international inspectors, as well as Moammar Gadhafi, who actually gave up his chemical weapons program. And then, we know after he died that the interim government in Tripoli found additional weapons that he did not declare.

So that's the first step after joining the treaty. Then the inspectors needs to go in, inventory all those weapons - that bulk agent - mothball the production facilities; roughly four or perhaps more of them in Syria. This is a multi-faceted process before anything actually gets destroyed.

SIEGEL: Well, in the case of sarin gas, is that stored in a lethal form? Or are the precursor chemicals stored separately, so that it could at least be shipped fairly safely?

SMITHSON: This is not the type of thing that anyone wants shipped through their backyard. In fact, when the United States was starting its destruction program, there were laws put up that precluded moving the weapons from one storage site to another. So I doubt that any country is going to stand up and say, bring it here, we'd like to destroy it here. Don't preclude it, but I doubt it.

SIEGEL: Bottom-line and not-so-subtle, what you're saying is you seem to find a plan that's been proposed to be, what I'm hearing, completely unfeasible, completely unworkable.

SMITHSON: As a person who has spent a career working to reduce the threat of chemical weapons in the world, if I'm worried about the ability to execute this deal, I would hope that that signifies something to your listeners and to those who are making decisions here. I'd like to see an easy solution to this situation but, quite frankly, there are none.

I'm worried that Assad would continue to use chemical weapons until this process swings into motion and just point the fingers once more at the rebels. There are just so many potential pitfalls here.

SIEGEL: Amy Smithson, thanks for talking with us.

SMITHSON: It's been a pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: Amy Smithson is senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.