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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Tomorrow is the deadline for Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, to complete the handover of his country's chemical weapons. More than 90 percent are reportedly removed an inspectors seem confident that Syrians will finish the job on time.

Some have declared victory, but others say Assad has used the chemical weapons deal to buy time to launch brutal offensives in its civil war. And now Western governments are investigating reports of recent chemical attacks. NPR's Alice Fordham reports on the controversy.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The deal was hammered out last year after a chemical attack outside Damascus killed hundreds, including children. Even after more than two years of war and the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, the world was horrified by footage of children struggling to breathe then giving up. Assad blamed the opposite position, but presented little evidence. And American investigators insist the president's forces did it. For a while, it even seemed the U.S. would strike. But instead, they forged the chemical weapons amnesty. Some call it a triumph.

MICHAEL LUHAN: All of this is unprecedented on various levels. It's never been done to disarm a country of any category of weapons, much less strategic weapons, in the middle of a war, of a hot war.

FORDHAM: Michael Luhan there, from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which oversees the handover. He says that the regime is on track to hand over the stockpile it's declared despite delays. But others point out that since the deal was struck, tens of thousands more civilians have died. A regime assault on the city of Aleppo with crude barrel bombs has leveled whole neighborhoods. And although Western governments say Assad must go, his forces are now winning the war. Joshua Landis, from the University of Oklahoma, is an expert in Syrian politics.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, I do think it was smart of Assad, and he did, in a sense, rejuvenate himself to a certain degree. You know, he made a crucial deal with the United States, which made him a partner in this. And it benefited Assad tremendously.

FORDHAM: Landis says that Assad's supporters were terrified the U.S. was going to attack. When the chemical weapons deal was struck, that fear disappeared.

LANDIS: The United States did not bomb, Saudi Arabia was furious, the rebels felt completely downcast, and Assad could continue on bombing with impunity in Syria. It was very clear, from the beginning of the civil war and talking to Syrian government people, that their one calculation at the beginning of this war was that if United States - if F-16s did not come over the horizon, Assad can prevail.

FORDHAM: Recently, there have even been questions about whether chemical attacks have stopped. French and American officials say they're investigating allegations of small-scale chlorine gas attacks. Chlorine is commonly use in industrial processes and was not covered in the agreement to ship weapons out of the country. And some think that not all of Syria's supply of chemical weapons were declared or given up by the regime.

DE BRETTON-GORDON: There's potentially about 200 tons of precursor chemicals, or potentially chemical weapons themselves, that are potentially missing from the declared stockpile. And so either the regime have kept some back, which I think is very likely, and/or opposition groups have obtained some.

FORDHAM: Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical weapons expert who works on Syria. Thus far, the opposition hasn't been able to prove that the regime is behind recent attacks. And Syria's staunch ally Russia, which was instrumental in negotiating the deal, said yesterday that the accusations against government forces are fabricated.

So now even as vast quantities of chemicals are safely on ships heading away from Syria, the suffering in the country continues. The UN Security Council plans next week to review a report that the regime has flagrantly violated international law by not allowing aid to rebel-held areas. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut.

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