Security, Logistics Problems Plague Syria's Weapons Removal

The end of December is a crucial deadline for removing chemical weapons from Syria. Now the OPCW, the international organization overseeing that transfer, is backing away from that deadline. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel discusses the plan for chemical weapons removal and disposal, and why it's been so hard.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

This week was supposed to mark an important deadline for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. Syria had pledged to relinquish its weapons. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is overseeing their destruction, said it wanted them out of Syria by the end of 2013. But security concerns and logistical hurdles made that a tough target to meet. Yesterday, the organization released a statement backing away from the December 31st deadline. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel joined me to talk more about the process and why it's been so difficult.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Back in September, Syria announced that it wanted to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles. Now, this was after a major attack near Damascus with a nerve agent that caused mass casualties.

LUDDEN: And the U.S. was threatening airstrikes, right, and so they came to this steel to give up the weapons.

BRUMFIEL: That's right. Now, since then, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been in overdrive trying to actually see this through and get the chemical weapons and mainly, actually, these are chemical weapons ingredients out of Syria. So far, it's gone pretty well. Syria disclosed the stocks they claimed they had in October. Around the same time, an inspector said they destroyed all the equipment for making and mixing these chemical agents. And then earlier this month, the munitions that were used to deliver these weapons were destroyed. But there are still over a thousand metric tons of chemical weapons ingredients that actually need to be gotten out of the country, and that's the real tough obstacle that lies ahead.

LUDDEN: Why can't they just destroy them there? Why must they leave the country?

BRUMFIEL: Well, I mean, they could destroy them there, and in every other case we've ever seen - Iraq, Albania, the U.S., Russia - they have destroyed them in the country. But there is one little problem in Syria, which is a raging civil war. And if there's one thing you don't want to be doing, it's handling toxic chemicals in the middle of a crisis, so.

LUDDEN: OK. So, they're trying to get them out then. Why will they not make this deadline by the 31st?

BRUMFIEL: Well, there are two big problems. And one is logistical and the other one is security. So, on the logistical front, what they had to do was figure out how they were going to destroy these chemical weapons. Initially, they'd hope to take them to a third-party country. But after checking around, it turns out nobody wanted a 1,000 metric tons of toxic chemical weapons ingredients. So, instead, the U.S. offered a ship. Basically, it's an oversized car ferry that they've loaded up with a bunch of sort of chemical weapons destruction units. These are specially designed vats where they can mix the chemicals with hot water and other agents to sort of deactivate them.

But now we have a ship, we have a bunch of chemical weapons in Syria and we have to get them out of Syria and to the ship. So, they have to go from their site to a port, then they have to be loaded on another ship because the U.S. doesn't want a Navy vessel in a Syrian port. And then they have to go to a third port, which we now think will be in Italy somewhere, and get offloaded and reloaded.

But the real problem is the security situation in Syria. Syria wanted armored vehicles, which Russia has now supplied, to help carry them. And they need to have everything tagged and tracked so that nothing gets lost or intercepted along the way, or if it does they can figure out what happened to it. So, it's that security situation in the ground combined with the logistical side on the other end that's led to this delay.

LUDDEN: OK. So, they won't make the deadline. How much does this matter?

BRUMFIEL: The experts I've been speaking to say that the really important thing is that they do this safely. That being said, you don't want to leave a lot of toxic chemical weapons ingredients in a war zone. And so if this slips much past mid- to late-January, I think people will start to get worried.

LUDDEN: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thank you so much.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

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