Syria Accused Of Stalling Disarmament Process

Wednesday is the deadline for the Syrian government to deliver hundreds of tons of toxic agents to a port, where they are to be taken out to sea and destroyed. Renee Montagne talks to Amy Smithson, senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, about the possible incentives driving the slow surrender.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Syria is missing a deadline today. It was supposed to deliver hundreds of tons of toxic agents to its port in Latakia. From there, the weapons would be taken out to sea and destroyed by sometime in June. That, at least, was the plan.

MONTAGNE: But so far, less than 5 percent of the weapons supply has turned up at the seaport. In recent days, the Obama administration has accused President Bashar al-Assad of deliberately stalling.

To get a sense of where this is leading, we turn to Amy Smithson, of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. She follows closely the activities of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and in particular, how those inspectors' work in Syria is progressing.

AMY SMITHSON: The inspectors are there as observers. The Syrians have to provide the manpower to do this - to destroy the equipment with blowtorches and bulldozers, to blow up the buildings, to drive the transport trucks from the storage location to the Port of Latakia.

The inspectors can't make them do this and so Syria can, in effect, stall by simply not putting men on the job. And in this case, the problem is that they're not putting soldiers - enough soldiers into the equation to make sure that these transports to the coast have sufficient security and that the roads are cleared.

MONTAGNE: President Assad's regime has blamed delays on, basically, the raging civil war there - hard to get through, very difficult to carry these weapons through. Now, Russian officials say the timetable for disarmament was always unrealistic. And according to the Russians, the Syrians are planning a big shipment of toxic agents later this month. Do the Russians have a point?

SMITHSON: Well, it was always going to be difficult. But the fact of the matter is that according to the U.S. intelligence community, which has been watching Syrian activities quite closely for the past few years, the Syrians have been moving this stuff about during that time period. So to now cry, we can't get it done, seems to me to be - well, a delaying tactic.

And the Russians are, of course, supporting the Syrians and also, pushing them at the same time. I think they just got a big a nudge from Moscow to get on with it, and that's why you see the Russians announcing that the Syrians will have this completed by the 1st of March.

MONTAGNE: President Assad does seem to have an incentive to drag out this operation, because as long as he has chemical weapons, the international, community - more or less - has to deal with him. Is there a penalty if he stalls too long?

SMITHSON: Well, the court of last resort here is the United Nations Security Council.

MONTAGNE: But, you know, as I understand it, the U.N. resolution requiring Syria to surrender its chemical weapons did not include a trigger for automatic sanctions for noncompliance. Should that resolution have included that?

SMITHSON: That would have been my preference. The initial agreement had the United States and Russia saying yes, and if Syria doesn't meet its obligations, there will be punishment. But in the Security Council Resolution 2118, they separated that out. And so if Syria is deemed to be in noncompliance, then a separate Security Council decision will have to be taken on whether or not there are economic sanctions or military action.

MONTAGNE: Finally, what do you see, then, coming out of this in the new future?

SMITHSON: To their credit, the United States and Russia are still finding a way to work together on this very important problem in the midst of a larger conflict. However, you have to count me among the cynics. I'm looking at what Syria has declared, and assuming - given Syria's past track record with regard to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty - that it probably hasn't made a complete and accurate declaration of its chemical weapons capabilities. So right now, we're focusing on getting out of Syria what Syria has declared and also, destroying the facilities that they have declared. Then we'll see what happens next.

MONTAGNE: Amy Smithson is a longtime expert in chemical and biological weapons. She's a senior fellow in Washington, D.C., with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Thank you very much for joining us.

SMITHSON: My pleasure to be with you.

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