Chemical Weapons Deadline May Be Met, But Results In Syria Are Mixed
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
I'm Audie Cornish. And we begin this hour with arms in Syria. The deadline is this weekend for the regime to hand over its chemical weapons. And it looks like Syria is on schedule to finish getting its chemical arsenal support where it will be shipped out and destroyed - at least that's the arsenal the government has declared. And this presumed success in limiting weapons of mass destruction may have mixed impact on the terrible civil war. In a moment, we'll also hear about the U.S. effort to send conventional arms to Syria.
But first, the chemical weapons. And we're joined by NPR's Alice Fordham, now in Beirut. And Alice, as we said, the deadline is on Sunday. What do we know about how far along Syria is in this process?
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: So the international body - the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons - that's been overseeing this month's long effort, they say it looks like they've taken more than 90 percent out and onto boats now. And that's more than 90 percent of the weapons that Syria has declared, of what the world knows about.
CORNISH: Now, you mentioned this has been going on for months. But remind us how we got here. How did Assad agree to give up these stocks of weapons?
FORDHAM: It was the fear of something worse. You probably remember in August last year there was a horrific chemical weapons attack just outside Damascus, which killed hundreds of people, including children. The U.S. blamed Assad's soldiers for it. Assad denied responsibility. For a while, it seemed as if the U.S. might actually respond with airstrikes, but eventually, with Russian mediation, there was a compromise and Assad agreed to give up 1,300 tons of dangerous chemicals or things you can use to make dangerous chemicals.
CORNISH: Now, how has this made a difference on the ground in Syria?
FORDHAM: Well, a lot of people say it hasn't made the difference in the way that they'd hoped. In the seven months or so since we saw that attack, Assad's forces have made big gains. He's given up chemical weapons, but he's used conventional weapons to level parts of the rebellious eastern side of Aleppo, which is Syria's biggest city. And with the help of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, he's retaken a crucial stretch of territory in the west which has a major highway along it. And his forces have besieged several areas, which has starved a lot of people, who were firmly with the opposition, into submission and truces and surrender.
CORNISH: So, it seems as though the opposition is in deep trouble at this point.
FORDHAM: Right. They're angry and they're downhearted. And, you know, often they direct this at the United States because they say that Assad's felt he can act with impunity since the U.S. backed off the airstrikes.
CORNISH: But if Sunday's deadline is met, can that at least stop the chemical attacks?
FORDHAM: Well, even that's in doubt actually. There isn't proof, but some Western officials worry that Assad never declared his entire stockpile of weapons. And lately we're hearing allegations of the use of chlorine gas in small-scale attacks. They don't seem anything like as lethal but we've spoken with doctors working inside Syria who alleged that they've treated chlorine attacks recently. The regime blames the rebels, but at least on some occasions, there's footage of devices being pushed out of helicopters, and only the regime has those.
CORNISH: So, Alice, how could the government be using chlorine though if they're not supposed to have chemical weapons?
FORDHAM: Well, chlorine wasn't covered in the chemical weapons agreement. It's used in lots of industrial processes, for example. It's also very difficult to prove its use. It disappears quite quickly before you can get a soil sample to a laboratory. And that highlights why some people are angry about all the attention just on the agreement and on chemical weapons. There's 250 people dying some days in Syria at the moment, killed by conventional weapons. And people feel like that should be enough to make the international community want to intervene to stop this slaughter.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Alice Fordham in Beirut. Alice, thanks so much for talking with us.
FORDHAM: Thanks for having me, Audie.
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