U.S. Faces Obstacles To Destroying Syria's Chemical Weapons

The U.S. is expected to provide equipment to destroy most of Syria's 1,000-ton chemical weapons stockpile, based on a deal negotiated with Russia. But there are plenty of obstacles. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman talks to Renee Montagne about the efforts to destroy Syria's chemical weapons.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The deadline is rapidly approaching for Syria to turn over a final declaration, an accounting of its stocks of chemical weapons. It's possible Syria will do that as early as today. The next move will be to destroy Syria's chemical weapons and the country's capacity to make them. There are, of course, still obstacles.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been looking into the details. And he joins us now in the studio. Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What's significant about this next deadline, I mean more than it would appear? I mean what does exactly Syria have to do?

BOWMAN: Well, the Syrian government has to declare everything in its chemical weapons inventory in the next several days, in much more detail than it has so far, as well as a destruction plan. So this means stockpiles of chemical agents. We're talking about mustard and nerve agent. And that would include everything from precursor chemicals, which is, of course, the chemicals before they're mix to form agents. Also, any bombs and rockets used to carry the chemicals.

Now, so far international inspectors working on this say Syria is cooperating. They're getting access to key sites, and that what Syria has declared so far in their chemical inventory matches up with what the inspectors were expecting.

MONTAGNE: And talking about deadlines here, the one coming up next week, November 1, is for, I gather, the destruction of all these weapons? The production facilities, rather.

BOWMAN: Yeah, the production facilities. Just yesterday, inspectors said they plan to meet the November 1 deadline for destroying the equipment at these sites, which would mean the Syrian government would not have the ability to produce any more of these chemicals, like mustard and nerve agent. Inspectors say they've visited 18 of 23 known chemical sites. And a low-tech approach is being used in these production areas. One official says they're smashing equipment, cutting it up, and in some cases pouring in concrete to destroy machinery.

MONTAGNE: But Tom, what about the chemical munitions, the weapons that they already have?

BOWMAN: That's right. And that could be a problem as inspectors and the international community move ahead on this. Because so far inspectors have not talked about any loaded munitions they've found. So we're not sure what they will have on this area. And this could be an area of contention, because the U.S. and others have said Syria used rockets filled with nerve gas to kill more than a thousand people outside Damascus.

So if Syria had these munitions, the question is, well, do they have more? Where are they? And if they say we don't have any or we have small number of them, you'll be hearing a lot of skeptical voices on that and also a push for maybe greater inspections.

MONTAGNE: And we've been talking about international inspectors. But what role is the U.S. playing in all this?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. has agreed so far to provide some equipment to destroy the precursor chemicals and the chemical agents themselves. The equipment they may send over is called a Field Deployable Hydrolysis System. And it's been used in the U.S. to destroy the American arsenal of mustard and nerve agent. And actually, Renee, it looks like one of those big stainless steel containers you'd see in a brewpub. It's a huge contraption. And you put in the chemicals and then add hot water and then things like bleach - and I'm simplifying it here - but that neutralizes the chemicals.

Now, what they would first do is get the chemical stockpiles out of the country. Secretary of State John Kerry has said it's - they hope to move it by ship. Then the chemicals would go to a third country. Norway is considering this, according to officials. And then the U.S. would use this gear to neutralize the chemicals. But we're a little ways off from that.

MONTAGNE: OK. Well, Tom, thanks very much for joining us.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

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