Skepticism Of Effort To Remove Syria's Weapons Remains Strong

Nearly 90 percent of Syria's chemical weapons have been removed from the country for destruction. At the same time, there are unconfirmed reports of chlorine bomb attacks by the Syrian government. NPR's Eric Westervelt talks to chemical weapons expert Amy Smithson.

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ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

Today's the deadline by which the Syrian government was supposed to give up all its chemical weapons. International observers say 92 percent of the government's declared weapons stockpiles have been removed from the country. But there are a lot of skeptics. Amy Smithson is one of them. She's a chemical weapons expert at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Amy, welcome to the program.

AMY SMITHSON: Thank you so much.

WESTERVELT: Let's begin with recent reports that the Syrian government may be dropping bombs filled with chlorine on civilians. What do we know about this?

SMITHSON: Well, there have been several incidents where apparently this has taken place. The key thing to take note of is that these barrel bombs are being dropped by helicopter. And the only party in this conflict that's got helicopters is the Syrian government. So fingers right away point in the direction of the al-Assad government.

WESTERVELT: This seems like such a crude weapon and tool, literally just packing chlorine and explosives into barrels and dropping them from helicopters.

SMITHSON: Yes, it's about as crude as it gets. And let's also keep in mind history. We're approaching a sad anniversary and that would be the 100th anniversary of when chemical warfare started. And chlorine and phosgene, both industrial chemicals, were the first chemicals used on the battlefield.

WESTERVELT: And if these reports are true, what does a chlorine attack mean for the ongoing efforts to disarm Syrian chemical weapons? I mean, this seems like a big loophole in the chemical weapons treaty, but yet chlorine is such a common industrial tool that can the loophole really be closed?

SMITHSON: Seems is the accurate word to use there because actually the treaty prohibits the use of any chemical, whether it's a classic warfare agent like mustard gas or a chemical that can also be used for industrial purposes like chlorine, from being used to achieve offensive military purposes. So Syria's a member of this treaty. Syria may have violated this treaty if indeed this turns out to be Syria's responsibility for dropping these bombs.

WESTERVELT: Amy, some analysts believe that the Syrian regime will try to hold on to some of its chemical weapons. You think that's the case?

SMITHSON: I do think that's the case in part because Syria declared mostly what it heard the United States government say it thought Syria had in terms of the chemical weapons program. And that's just far too convenient to begin with.

So I expect Syria to have not only additional chemical weapons delivery systems, but also additional mobile mixing and production facilities, perhaps an underground facility or two that they didn't declare. They may have held back precursor chemicals. Those are the chemicals that feed into a warfare agent. And they can always tap into their commercial industry for additional precursor chemicals. So quite frankly, this is a tiger that isn't going to change its stripes.

WESTERVELT: Amy, it doesn't appear that seizing Syria's chemical weapons has done anything to weaken the regime's military might or bring about an end to the fighting.

SMITHSON: Well, unfortunately that does appear to be the case but that doesn't mean that this wasn't the right thing to do. In this particular instance, the United States and the rest of the international community - except Russia - are standing up and saying, you can't use these weapons, that the norm against chemical weapons possession and use must be upheld. At the end of the day this becomes a political decision on what punishment, if any, to send Syria's way.

WESTERVELT: Amy Smithson is with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Thanks so much for coming in.

SMITHSON: My pleasure.

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