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So You Found The Chemical Weapons. How Do You Transport Them?


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

As of Friday, all of Syria's unfilled chemical munitions had been destroyed. That's according to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. For an agreement reached just weeks ago that may seem fast, but the job has just begun, and the scariest part is still ahead. They may have destroyed the munitions but not the nasty stuff that goes inside. When it comes to chemical weapons, it's the chemical part that's key.

A lot of attention has been paid to the method the U.S. were using to destroy those chemicals at sea. But according to Amy Smithson, senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the U.S. knows how to do that. It's what happens before that worries her.

AMY SMITHSON: As far as I know, the Syrian government has not declared any filled weapons that contain the blister agent mustard or the nerve agent sarin. Instead, what they've declared is a whole lot of bulk chemicals, and that's what is being packaged to move toward the Port of Latakia. Once the materials get on board a ship, the warfare agent will be destroyed in hydrolysis system.

RATH: The United States has had a difficult time finding partners in the international community to help with the destruction of these materials. What's behind that?

SMITHSON: That's not entirely surprising. Anyone familiar with the history of the U.S. chemical weapons destruction program will know the NIMBY - not in my backyard - attitude that anyone takes when it comes to destruction of chemical weapons. In the U.S. program, high-temperature incineration was originally the technology. And there were such public protests about high-temperature incineration that they had to come up with new technologies. And that's how we came to develop the neutralization technology.

RATH: Amy, I know you're familiar with the issues - complicated issues around verification for this sort of thing. So how confident can we feel that these are all of the chemical weapons from the Assad regime?

SMITHSON: I, at present, am not confident that the Assad regime has declared everything. In fact, their declaration largely resembles what has been stated publicly by the U.S. government and other governments about what they think the Syrian government had in its chemical arsenal. This is a man who has gassed civilians and engaged in war over the course of two years plus and killed over 100,000 people. I don't put anything beyond what he might do in terms of maybe cheating on this agreement.

RATH: Well, what's the nightmare scenario? What could happen to these things - the worst thing that could happen to these materials?

SMITHSON: It is unprecedented that materials be destroyed at sea. But really, it's much more routine, a standard operational procedure because these are such proven technologies. The threat in this process is on land in Syria. Syria is overrunning with fighters of all types: Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaida. And they might want to get their hands on these chemicals.

So, quite frankly, might the Syrian government decide to dress somebody up as a rebel and go in there and take it back, thereafter being able to use the materials and accuse the rebels, as they have, of using chemical weapons. This is an unprecedented thing for a government that has acquired a weapon of mass destruction to relinquish it in the midst of war.

I'm very pleased that the Obama administration stood up to enforce the norm against chemical weapons use and possession. And I'm pleased that the Syrian government appears to be cooperating. I don't trust them, but they appear to be doing many of the right things in this process thus far. But we don't know what we don't know.

RATH: Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Amy, thank you.

SMITHSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.