Syria Is On Track To Meet Chemical Weapons Deadline

The most dangerous chemicals in its declared stockpile are supposed to be removed by Sunday. But there are reports Syria may be using less toxic chemicals, including chlorine, against civilians.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This is about as close as we're going to get to good news out of Syria. The country is on track, we're told, to meet a deadline to give up its chemical weapons arsenal. The most dangerous chemicals in Syria's declared stockpile are supposed to be removed by Sunday, yet Syria now faces suspicion that it's using less toxic chemicals, possibly chlorine. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary of State John Kerry counts the chemical weapons deal he negotiated with Russia as one of his diplomatic wins in his first year in office. He brought it up in remarks this week.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: There's an enormous amount happening out there. You know, we now have the majority percentage of chemical weapons moved out of Syria and we're moving on schedule to try to complete that task.

KELEMEN: The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says another shipment of dangerous chemicals reached a Syrian port Thursday. An OPCW spokesman, Michael Luhan, says now more than 92 percent of the 1,200 metric tons of toxic materials have shipped out of Syria.

MICHAEL LUHAN: And that remaining 7.5 percent is all stored at one single site. Unfortunately, that site is the site that was identified by the Syrian authorities a couple of months ago as being in a contested area where access was not entirely secure.

KELEMEN: Luhan says it's up to Syria to meet this weekend's deadline. He says it is possible. And while this isn't the end of the story, it is the end of the toughest part, he says, removing dangerous chemicals in the midst of a civil war.

LUHAN: We're almost there. As I said, we've got one more site and that site conceivably could be evacuated in one more large consignment and we've got three days to do that.

KELEMEN: Luhan says Syria has been cooperating and all the materials that it declared are being removed for destruction. But one chemical weapons expert, Amy Smithson of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, has her doubts.

AMY SMITHSON: I am very concerned the Syria's declaration wasn't accurate or complete to begin with, and my concerns stem largely from the track record of the Syrian government in this war and prior to this war.

KELEMEN: Syria, she says, cheated on the nuclear nonproliferation accord, building a suspected nuclear facility that Israel bombed in 2007 and Smithson says there are strong indications that Syria is cheating now, tapping into its commercial chemical industry and using chlorine gas as a weapon of war.

SMITHSON: If it is, indeed, chlorine or phosgene that has been used, they're both legitimate commercial chemicals, but they could be diverted for military purposes. In fact, both chlorine and phosgene were the first chemicals used on the battlefield during World War I.

KELEMEN: Syria's ambassador to the UN, Bashar Ja'afari, dismisses those reports.

AMBASSADOR BASHAR JA'AFARI: It is a mundane substance, chemical substance, used for bleaching clothes in the laundry or disinfecting swimming pools, for instance. The Syrian government denies categorically the use of the chlorine gas by the Syrian Army or by any military units operating under the umbrella of the Syrian Army.

KELEMEN: He says the rebels and their backers in the West are just trying to divert attention away from Syria's plans to hold elections. Syria's backer on the UN Security Council, Russia, seems to agree. In an interview on Russia Today, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the U.S. of adding new demands to carefully crafted diplomatic deals, and he says the Syrian chemical weapons deal is an example of that.

SERGEI LAVROV: The Americans almost from the very first day started to, you know, ring the alarm bell, saying that the government is dragging on this, it's not delivering on its commitments, and they were fully ignoring the facts.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has been careful not to push too hard on the chlorine issue while Syria is close to shipping out the rest of its more dangerous chemicals. The OPCW spokesman says this issue is being intensely debated, but there are no plans yet for any formal investigation. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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