U.N. Inspectors Try To Get To Site Of Alleged Syrian Attack

United Nations Weapons inspectors are already in Syria investigating previous allegations the Assad regime used chemical weapons. Renee Montagne talks to Charles Duelfer, a former U.N. weapons inspector, about this week's apparent evidence of a chemical attack on the outskirts of the capital Damascus.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And we turn now to Charles Duelfer, a long-time U.N. weapons inspector. He was the author of the 2004 Duelfer Report, which confirmed that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when the U.S. invaded. Good morning.

CHARLES DUELFER: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, looking here at Syria and based on your extensive experience as a weapons inspector, do the scenes that we're seeing in these opposition videos, look to you consistent with what you would expect to see in a chemical attack?

DUELFER: Well, yes. They do. But even more important than the videos are the interviews with some of the physicians on hand, who have described, in a fair amount of detail, the characteristics of the injuries that the victims have had. Such as constricted eyeballs and pupils, the breathing, foaming at the mouth - these are all responses that sarin gas, a nerve agent, would produce.

MONTAGNE: What would be the kind of evidence, besides the visuals, that's possible to obtain from the scene of an attack that would prove that chemical weapons were used, if indeed, they were?

DUELFER: Well, that weapons inspectors that they get, they have a lot of tools that they can use. Of course, the sooner they get there the better. Like, they take samples both from the surrounding area; places where the agent may have come in contact from trees and various places like that. But more importantly, they can take samples from the victims themselves.

There are various sophisticated chemical tools for analysis that they can look at; the chemical compounds that may have made up the sarin, the types of sarin that might have been used. It's also important to realize not all sarin or nerve agent is the same, so if they can identify the particular type that will tell a lot about where it may have came from.

MONTAGNE: And you said the sooner they get there the better. You're obviously, of course, you're not on that team but you have been on others. What are some of the obstacles the team in Damascus probably faces, in getting access to the site of these attacks?

DUELFER: Well, those modalities which have to be agreed with the governments, in terms of how they're going to get to places, who they can speak to, what types of sampling they can take. So those have (unintelligible) a little bit negotiated already.

But there's a lot of restrictions. They take government minders with them. They'll be limited to whom they can speak to and under what conditions. Once they get there, if they can take samples. You know, it's not a simple process. You can't just take a sample, put it in an envelope and mail it to some laboratory. 'Cause, after all, the suspicion is that these are lethal agents, so they have to be protected very carefully. They have to put them in shipping containers.

And to make sure that their results and their judgments are accepted by the international community, they have to do it in a very, very cautious way; taking multiple samples to be evaluated by multiple laboratories.

MONTAGNE: Do you think, though, that they will even get permission from the Syrian government?

DUELFER: Well, this is a puzzle. You know, they agreed to have the inspectors come in to look at these three sites, which took place three months ago, I think. And yet, if the government was in back of this massive attack, why would they do it while the inspectors are right there? The most obvious thing in the world is they're going to ask to go to see these spots. The international community has reacted very strongly.

It will be a very key indicator whether the government, in fact, says you can go to these sites. Or they say no, it's too dangerous - they offer some fig leaf. That will be a very key point coming up in the next day or two.

MONTAGNE: And finally, this is, you know, an active war zone in the fog of war. Will they be able, were this to be a chemical attack and they got there, to trace back who did it?

DUELFER: That's not part of their mandate. The secretary-general of the U.N. says their sole task is to determine whether chemical agents had been used. They're not tasked with finding out who was in back of it. The international community will be able to make some pretty good judgments on that. And bear in mind, there's a lot of intelligence agencies across the planet focused on that. These are going to be pretty well understood questions in the next few days.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

DUELFER: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's Charles Duelfer. He was a U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, talking to us about allegations of chemical weapons being used in Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.