Chemical Weapons Inspectors In Syria Just Getting Started

Melissa Block talks with Anne Barnard, Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times, about the challenges facing weapons inspectors charged with assessing and dismantling chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

International weapons inspectors have begun the process of verifying Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons. A team of 19 inspectors, plus staff, arrived in Damascus on Tuesday. New York Times reporter Anne Barnard is also in the Syrian capital, and I asked her how the inspectors' mission will work.

ANNE BARNARD: They are starting the logistical work of figuring out how they're going to do their mission. And their first step is supposed to be verifying the information that the Syrian government provided about its weapons stockpiles and production facilities and to start making a plan for the first stage of dismantling the production facilities, which is supposed to be done by November 1.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about the first part of that mission that you mentioned, and that's to verify the information that the regime of Bashar al-Assad has provided. How do they do that? How can they confirm that he has divulged everything that he has?

BARNARD: Well, I haven't spoken to them about it yet, so I don't have inside information about how they plan to go about it. But I do know that the challenges are going to be vast because some of the facilities are not even in areas that the government controls. And, of course, there's no telling whether there may be facilities that were not disclosed.

BLOCK: Yeah, that's been a real question here is, are there secret locations, secret chemical weapons stockpiles? And there are people from former members of the regime who have said exactly that, that there are.

BARNARD: Yes. Well, we have to remember that it was only just now that the government even acknowledged having chemical weapons. They always considered this a kind of a strategic ambiguity that balances out that of Israel's unacknowledged nuclear program.

BLOCK: If some of the chemical weapons stockpiles are in areas, as you say, that are no longer under government control, that raises a whole other set of questions for these inspectors, doesn't it?

BARNARD: Yes, because when you look at the missions that the U.N. tries to accomplish on a much more routine basis such as delivering food and medical supplies, even that is a tremendous challenge for the United Nations. They work with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which is connected to the government, and even still, they're not always able to get where they want to go, both because the government doesn't always give permission, also because of the changing security situation in different places across the country, and also because the rebels who, as we know, are not one unified group, they're a collection of factions, they don't always allow shipments through. And even if many rebel groups on the route to a certain place allow them through, it only takes one group to hold up a convoy or make it turn around.

BLOCK: The organization that's going to be in charge of dismantling these chemical weapons production facilities and the weapons themselves talk about using everything from sledgehammers to pouring concrete. What can you tell us about the nature of the operation and how long it realistically is going to take them?

BARNARD: People on all sides of this question, whether they support the government, oppose it, as well as outside experts, they all agree that the timetable that's been proposed, which is about a year, is very tight. And it would be a great accomplishment even if there weren't an active civil war going on.

BLOCK: Anne Barnard, as you talk to people in Damascus - to the extent that you're able to talk to people - are they paying attention to the chemical weapons process and the U.N. inspectors that are there?

BARNARD: Well, we've been talking to people here and in other parts of the country, and they're talking our ear off about many things. And the one thing that there is great consensus on is that they don't really care about this very much. We talked to military people close to the front line today, and we've talked to stalwart opponents of the government, and they use almost the exact same words when they describe this issue. They say, this is a war 100,000 people have died, and the vast majority of them are not killed by chemical weapons. So for Syrians, this whole thing is something of a sideshow. And what they all are interested in is whether there's a way to end the fighting here.

BLOCK: That's Anne Barnard of The New York Times reporting from Damascus, Syria. Anne, thanks so much.

BARNARD: Thank you, Melissa.

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