Diplomatic Solution In Syria Is Rife With Complications

Diplomats continue to consider a Russian plan to get Syria to hand over its chemical weapons to international control. If nations can agree on the details, the plan could avert a U.S. strike against Syrian targets. But accounting for and destroying Syria's chemical arsenal is a complicated undertaking.

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Syria's foreign minister has pledged to open up the country's chemical weapons storage sites and production facilities to international inspectors, and as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, that effort is sure to be a lot easier said than done.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Experts say Syria has the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the Middle East, tons of deadly toxins, including the nerve agent sarin, at a variety of sites, some of them underground. Now Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad apparently wants to come clean on his chemical weapons.

AMY SMITHSON: There are lots of complications in this proposal.

BOWMAN: That's Amy Smithson. She's a chemical weapons expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The first complicating factor, she says, is credibility.

SMITHSON: Assad has not told the truth about his chemical arsenal. He has already interfered with inspections, so to assume that the declaration that the Assad government would be making is going to be accurate is really to take a leap of faith.

BOWMAN: A leap of faith given the Assad regime's recent dealings with U.N. weapons inspectors. The U.S. says that Assad used chemical weapons last month in rebel-held areas outside Damascus. Assad refused for four days to let inspectors visit the site. Now his government's cooperation would be essential if any verification plan was to work. There's another challenge, the sheer scale of Syria's chemical weapons program.

SMITHSON: In Syria, it could take a few years before their arsenal is destroyed.

BOWMAN: How many sites are we talking about?

SMITHSON: At least half a dozen sites. Syria has four production facilities, two of which are believed to be underground, a few storage facilities as well as a research and development facility in Damascus itself.

BOWMAN: Syria says it will open up those production and storage sites. Anthony Cordesman is a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says there are also chemical munitions at multiple sites.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: The problem is, you have to know where they all are. You have to figure out how to account for weapons by type and delivery system.

BOWMAN: Experts say that Assad has thousands of bombs, missiles and shells that could be used for chemical weapons delivery. Another complicating factor: Syria's civil war. Experts say there's never been an international effort to secure and destroy chemical weapons under war conditions. Again, Amy Smithson.

SMITHSON: The known sites are actually in zones of conflict where the battle lines are changing literally on a day to day basis.

BOWMAN: That means rebel groups might have to be part of the solution to destroy the chemical weapons of their enemy. Some groups might not agree to let inspectors in. Finally, there's the cleanup itself. The chemical munitions would likely have to be destroyed onsite. That would take the construction of special buildings and experts to handle the job.

Still, Cordesman says it appears both the U.S. and its allies are willing to try this approach, however difficult.

CORDESMAN: None of this is mission impossible, but it is certainly not easy. It isn't quick and it requires a lot of transparency and cooperation.

BOWMAN: That means delaying a U.S. attack on Syrian military targets and getting Syria to give up its chemical weapons.

CORDESMAN: And create a situation where either Syria fully complies or the U.S. has a whole new rationale for the use of force.

BOWMAN: Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to meet with Russia's foreign minister this week to see just how far its ally, Syria, is willing to go. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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