Syria Falls Behind Destroying Its Chemical Weapons

Linda Wertheimer gets a progress report on Syria's disposal of chemical weapons from Amy Smithson, an expert at the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Russia helped the U.S. reach an agreement last year to destroy Syria's chemical weapons, but Syria is lagging behind on it's shipments of toxic agents to the coast for destruction at sea. When Bashar al-Assad's regime missed an early February deadline, the Russians made assurances that the chemicals would be removed by March 1st. Now, Syria says it needs until late April.

Amy Smithson, of the Center for Proliferation Studies, has some insights into the delays and she joins me now in the studio. Welcome.

AMY SMITHSON: A pleasure to be here.

WERTHEIMER: So, first of all, what portion of its toxic agents has Syria actually shipped to the Port of Latakia?

SMITHSON: There have been four convoys that they've got into the coast. The most recent was of mustard gas and it consisted of roughly a 20 metric tons, bringing the total that they've gotten to the coast to about 135 metric tons. That's out of 1,300 metric tons that they declared, so we've got a long way to go here.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Syrian authorities reported, last week, that one of the problems they're having is that the convoys carrying chemical weapons have come under attack. Is there any way to confirm whether that's happened?

SMITHSON: Both Syrian and Russian authorities have made this claim that have recently had communications with the inspectors, who are their monitoring this process. And apparently they have not seen anything to this sort, in terms of attacks on convoys. So they are the eyewitnesses at this point, and it's hard to tell whether or not these claims are being made to justify the delays, or what the circumstances are.

WERTHEIMER: But if it did happen, it would obviously complicate the ability of the Syrians to move anything

SMITHSON: Of course. This has been a complicated endeavor from the outset. It's never been attempted in terms of disarming a state of its weapon of mass distraction in the midst of an ongoing conflict. So that was - the handwriting was on the wall along time ago. If you look at the situation since this agreement was reached, the Syrians have had manpower that they have not been willing to divert to clear the roads, to get these convoys moving, and to protect these convoys as they are in transit. So I'm not so sure I believe the Syrian claims here.

WERTHEIMER: The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reported last week that Syria has made measurable progress. And additionally said that its production, mixing, and filling capabilities have been rendered inoperable. Does that mean we don't have so much to worry about?

(LAUGHTER)

SMITHSON: Well, in a certain sense, yes. We're making progress and that's worthwhile to acknowledge. Last fall, the inspectors watched as the Syrian military took blowtorches and bulldozers and made a lot of this equipment, that has been used to make chemical warfare agents, unworkable anymore. But U.S. Ambassador Bob Mikulak raised concerns recently that the Syrians are, indeed, dragging their feet in finishing this job. There was baulking at completing the destruction of 12 production and storage facilities. And under the treaty, they are allowed to convert these facilities if they're given permission to do so, but that permission has not been granted.

WERTHEIMER: Now when we talked to you last month. And at that point you were encouraged that the U.S. and Russia were cooperating on the chemical weapons in Syrian. Now, Russia of course is at the moment busy with the Ukraine crisis. Do you think it's actually pressuring its ally, Bashar al-Assad, to pick up the pace?

SMITHSON: Well, I've always thought it was quite commendable that the United States and Russia found common ground on the chemical part of the Syrian conflict, but it was a fractuous partnership to begin with, because the Russians, obviously, want to see their allies stay in power and they've been known to sell them a few conventional weapons. But they have dirty hands in terms of Syria's chemical weapons program. A guy by the name of Anatoly Kontsevich(ph) is thought to have sold them, not only precursor chemicals, but equipment and know-how. So Russia's willingness to press Syria hard may be in question, even before the U.S. and international response to the situation in the Ukraine. So a complicated situation has just gotten even more complicated.

WERTHEIMER: Amy Smithson is a senior fellow with the Center for Non-proliferation Studies in Washington. Thank you very much.

SMITHSON: My pleasure.

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