Syria May Have Prepared To Use Chemical Weapons

Robert Siegel talks to Tom Bowman about Syria's chemical weapons.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And we're turning to the civil war in Syria now for a few minutes. We have new details suggesting the Syrian government may have prepared to use chemical weapons. U.S. officials say that, just a few weeks ago, Syria loaded bombs and artillery shells with the chemicals used to make the deadly nerve agent sarin.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been following the story and has information not yet reported. Tom, tell us more about what caused such alarm among U.S. officials.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Robert, U.S. intelligence a few weeks ago picked up evidence that Syrian forces were combining precursor chemicals for sarin, the nerve agent. And what's new here is the number of bombs and shells that were apparently loaded with the chemicals. We're hearing there were several dozen, which is a much larger number than has been reported.

And that would explain why, as you remember, the president and Secretary of State Clinton warned Syria not to use chemical weapons and that there would be consequences.

SIEGEL: Any indication that the preparations continue despite those warnings?

BOWMAN: No, the administration said things appear to have settled down. But earlier this week, Syria fired Scud missiles, as many as eight of them, at rebel enclaves. And when this happened, there was real concern in Washington among military officials that these missile warheads contained that sarin gas, which is one of the most lethal of all chemical weapons. It can kill in minutes. Of course it turned out the Scuds did not have chemical weapons.

SIEGEL: Tom, what are you hearing about preparations by the U.S. in case chemical weapons are used or are about to be used?

BOWMAN: We're hearing CIA contractors are training rebels across the border in Jordan on how to secure and handle these chemical weapons. And NATO is also stepping up planning. The Czech Republic, formerly part of the Soviet bloc, has a great deal of expertise on chemical weapons and is said to be leading the effort for NATO.

And this includes possibly a larger training effort for the rebels, identifying medical personnel within NATO who could help should there be casualties. There's also some talk about even air-dropping medicines into Syria if they're needed. And then, finally, NATO is reaching out to Syrian opposition about how to secure these weapons in the chemical stockpiles, which are in dozens of sites around the country, should the Syrian regime fall.

SIEGEL: OK, thank you Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

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