Syria Expected To Spar With Inspectors As Weapons Hunt Begins

Oct 5, 2013
Originally published on October 5, 2013 12:37 pm

An international team of weapons experts is at work in Syria on the job of finding and destroying the nation's chemical stockpile. Inspectors crossed in Syria from Lebanon on Tuesday.

But the job will be difficult and possibly dangerous, says Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Smithson, an expert in chemical and biological weapons, tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon that Syrian President Bashar Assad has proven untrustworthy in the past and is unlikely to be completely upfront with inspectors about the location and extent of his chemical munitions.

He may also allow the joint team of experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations to come in harm's way, Smithson says.

"The U.N. Security Council put the onus for providing security for these inspections on the Assad government, and when the investigators were there previously, it's very likely that the Assad government turned snipers loose," she says. "This is a dicey proposition, not in the least part because in the midst of Syria we also have Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaida."

Assad could also be scrambling to make his chemical weapons hard to find.

"If Assad is true to form — and previously he has stalled and delayed and done everything he could to hide evidence of his nuclear weapons program — now's the time for him to be moving things about and perhaps hiding what he wants to try keep away from the inspectors," Smithson says.

Making a challenging circumstance even more precarious, the team is operating under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the Assad regime agreed to in September. The convention is designed for disarmament by cooperating partners, not states whose acquiescence has been coerced.

While the treaty allows access to Assad's weapons, it also give his government rights, Smithson says. Assad could potentially keep inspectors from certain areas, she says, declaring them irrelevant because they house conventional weapons or "unrelated" records.

"He can fence with inspectors a great deal. I do expect, given his past behavior, to try to hide evidence and maybe get away with what he can," Smithson says.

Intelligence experts may see through such smokescreens, she adds. However, she says, "previously there have been times when intelligence about chemical and biological weapons programs have been grossly off the mark."

Smithson expects the team will make significant progress in destroying Syria's chemical stockpile. The U.S. and Russia have powerful resources at hand to neutralize the weapons.

"There are a number of assets that the United States and also Russia can bring to bear to destroy bulk chemical warfare agents and even chemcial weapons munitions," she says. "These assets involved cargo-container-sized equipment that will put water in the agent and put other chemicals to degrade it with great effectiveness."

But Smithson is cautious.

"I'm just not sure that Assad, Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaida are going to cooperate with this," she says. "So it's just difficult every which way you look, but there are definitely practical things that can be brought to bear."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Chemical weapons have been used in Syria. That much we know. The United Nations reports seem to point to the regime of Bashar al-Assad as being responsible, and after much debate around the world, the Assad regime agreed to hand over their chemical stockpile.

This week, the process of finding and destroying the weapons began in Syria. Amy Smithson joins us now. She's a senior fellow with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies. She joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

AMY SMITHSON: It's a pleasure to be with you.

SIMON: International inspectors arrived in Damascus this week. How do they begin?

SMITHSON: Well, first of all they're going to have some pretty long and perhaps even difficult discussions with the Syrians. The U.N. Security Council put the onus for providing security for these inspections on the Assad government and when the investigators were there previously, it's very likely that the Assad government turned snipers loose, so this is a dicey proposition not in the least part because in the midst of Syria we also have Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaida.

SIMON: You know the concern of a lot of people in the international community is that the Assad regime is talking in one setting and hiding and concealing weapons in the other.

SMITHSON: If Assad is true to form, and previously he has stalled and delayed and done everything he could to hide evidence of his nuclear weapons program. Now is the time for him to be moving things about and perhaps hiding what he wants to try to keep away from the inspectors. This is something certainly that Saddam Hussein did a great deal of when the United Nations special commission was sent in to disarm him after the 1991 Gulf War.

SIMON: How do the inspectors begin to get hold of this, and can they?

SMITHSON: It's tremendously difficult to undertake this in this type of a security environment. The Chemical Weapons Convention is a treaty built for disarmament with a cooperating partner, and one of the things that is going to be awkward and perhaps confusing for people is that the Security Council resolution has things like unfettered access. So does the Chemical Weapons Convention, but right next to that it has rights for the party that is being inspected?

Neither of them stripped Assad of those rights under the treaty to manage that access. He can declare some areas, don't go over there; that's where my conventional weapons are. No, I won't open that door, or that file drawer because those are records and things that are unrelated to treaty compliance. He can fence with inspectors a great deal. I do expect, given his past behavior, to try to hide evidence and maybe get away with what he can.

SIMON: At the same time, based on your experience, would you count on the CIA and MI6 and Mossad to be able to figure that out, if he's doing that?

SMITHSON: One would hope that our intelligence assets are that good. All I can say is that previously there have been times when intelligence about chemical and biological weapons programs have been grossly off the mark.

SIMON: I guess I have to ask you, in conclusion, a daunting task; does it strike you as practical?

SMITHSON: Well, there are a number of assets that the United States and also Russia can bring to bear to destroy bulk chemical warfare agents and even chemical weapons munitions. These assets involved cargo container-sized equipment that will put water in the agent and put other chemicals to degrade it with great effectiveness. I'm just not sure that Assad, Hezbollah and al-Qaida are going to cooperate with this.

So it's just difficult every which way you look, but there are definitely practical things that can be brought to bear.

SIMON: Amy Smithson is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Thanks so much for being with us.

SMITHSON: Thank you.

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