Syria To Miss Deadline To Remove Chemical Weapons Stockpile

Dec 31, 2013
Originally published on December 31, 2013 7:44 am
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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne. This New Year's Eve is also a deadline in one of the year's biggest stories. Syria is due to turn over more than 500 tons of some its most deadly materials in its stockpile of chemical weapons. That was part of the deal brokered with the Assad regime by the U.S. and Russia, after a chemical attack outside Damascus killed many hundreds of civilians. But the Syrian government will not meet today's deadline.

And to find out more, we reached Ake Sellstrom. He was head of the United Nations team of inspectors sent to Syria after that attack. And we reached him at his home in Sweden.

Thank you for joining us again.

AKE SELLSTROM: Mm-hmm, thank you.

MONTAGNE: How important is it that Syria is missing this deadline?

SELLSTROM: I don't think it's very significant. No one is blaming Syria for not cooperating. It's rather that taking the material away from Syria, which is a quicker way of destroying it and a safer way of destroying it, has taken some time to get organized. Several countries have been asked if they could receive it, and have denied. And now the solution is to take it from Syria, and to destroy it in ships out on the water.

MONTAGNE: So that removal, it would be - when it happens - from the port city of Latakia. And it would go on international ships. They would pass it from those ships to an American ship, which has the technology to destroy it, in the middle of the ocean. What seems to be happening, though, is a key part of it is getting it to Latakia, and it's over a road in Syria that is controlled by the government but not totally secure.

SELLSTROM: That is correct.

MONTAGNE: So if the concern is about these vehicles being attacked as they're trying to get the chemical weapons to the coast, who would be attacking them if the rebel groups are on board this deal?

SELLSTROM: I guess there is a concern. I mean, it's dangerous. It's not as dangerous as it's portrayed because the chemicals are not in their final state. But still, mustard will be transported and mustard is ready to use; and it's dangerous for the people that - living around it. And, you know, there could be friendly fire. There could be accidents because of improvised explosive devices or mines, or whatever.

So of course, there is some concern. And another concern is that the opposition is not very well-organized. They're not very well centrally controlled.

MONTAGNE: Right, because there have been concerns about al-Qaida-linked groups and extremist groups...

SELLSTROM: True. True.

MONTAGNE: ...that may not be going along with this central rebel organization.


MONTAGNE: Let's look back, briefly, to a few months ago. You weren't able to get to all of the sites of the alleged chemical attacks because of security concerns. So were you confident that the government had accounted for all the chemicals and all the chemical weapons?

SELLSTROM: I would think so. I mean, the chemical weapons in Syria is a strategic element in Syria. It's in response to nuclear weapons in the neighbor. And if you have a strategic weapon like that - that you want to threaten your neighbor with - then the neighbor has to know that you have this weapon. Otherwise, it's useless. The neighbor has to, you know, somehow be afraid of your weapon and know that you have this capability. So I think if they hide something now, it's of no use to them.

MONTAGNE: So as a deterrent, a hidden weapon doesn't do Syria any good. So your belief is clearly, that they've given up what they've got.

SELLSTROM: Yeah. I'm thinking they have to give up the position. OK, we give up the position of this as a deterrent.

MONTAGNE: Now, within Syria, within this civil war, both sides have accused the other side of using chemical weapons. In your latest report, you've documented at least three attacks on Syrian soldiers, which opens the door to the possibility that rebel groups - and some of them linked to al-Qaida - have used chemical weapons. Where does that stand? Is it possible that both sides have, in fact, used chemical weapons?

SELLSTROM: We know that the government - have chemical weapons. We don't know that the opposition had chemical weapons. But we cannot for sure say that they didn't have it. There are rumors about smuggling out chemical weapons to the rebels through Turkey. There are rumors about laboratories. And there are even rumors that the government lost munitions to the rebels. But we really don't know. I mean - and if you ask my personal, you know, feeling about it - I really don't know.

MONTAGNE: Well, just finally, looking ahead to the New Year, is this deal to rid Syria of chemical weapons and the material for chemical weapons, is it on track? Is it going to happen?

SELLSTROM: Oh yes, it will happen. It was an optimistic time and - to put pressure on them, and to keep the pressure there. Now, Syria is trying to live by that timeline. It's rather us - it's rather the West or Russia or whatever, cannot get our acts together.

MONTAGNE: That's Ake Sellstrom. He's head of the U.N. team of inspectors who investigated the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Thanks very much.

SELLSTROM: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.