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What Are the Ground Rules of Transferring Weapons to International Control?

September 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons is believed to be the largest in the world. How would the international community go about working with Syria to take over its deadly arms? Jeffrey Brown talks to Charles Duelfer, a former UN weapons inspector, for more on the complications like security amid the ongoing civil war.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we turn from the heartbreaking humanitarian crisis to the nuts and bolts of how to make a diplomatic deal work and put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control.

For that, we turn to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a stockpile that’s believed to be the largest in the world. A pre-war map compiled by the Monterey Institute shows where Syria’s chemical weapons and production facilities were thought to be, spread through the western half of the country. Definitive information on the current situation is much harder to come by.

To walk us through all this, we turn again to Charles Duelfer, a top U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq during the 1990s. After the U.S. invasion in 2003, he led the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group, which continued to look for weapons of mass destruction. He’s author of “Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq.”

And welcome back to you.

CHARLES DUELFER, former chief U.S. weapons inspector: Thank you, Jeff.

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JEFFREY BROWN: First, a simple question. What does it mean to hand over chemical weapons? What happens physically? And who does it?

CHARLES DUELFER: Well, the process would be, presumably, one set out by it Security Council, where they put the burden of proof and the burden of doing these things on the Syrian government.

So what would happen is they would constitute a group of weapons inspectors, but the burden of showing where the weapons were and accounting for them would be on the Syrian government. They would show the weapon inspectors where they were, tell them how many they had and the weapons inspectors would have to verify the veracity of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, if that’s the case, and based on experience, what kind of ground rules — because you think about what could go wrong here and how to do it right. What kind of ground rules would you want to set?

CHARLES DUELFER: Well, first, let me say, we have done this before successfully in the case of Iraq in the 1990s. The weapons inspectors were far more successful than anyone even knew.

At that point in time, we laid out very strict rules by which the weapons inspectors had access to locations, to documents, to people. It was the weapons inspectors who could select the locations that they would inspect. It was the obligation of the country, and in this case Damascus, to either consolidate the weapons at certain known locations and provide an inventory of what they had, and then the weapons inspectors would then either destroy them or guard them or account for them or put them under lock and key, perhaps in some kind of a bunker that would have international supervision.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how easy is it for — would it be for the Syrians to either move or hide these things if they wanted to make it difficult?

CHARLES DUELFER: Well, this is the challenge of being a weapons inspector.

The Syrians would give them a statement of their inventory. Certainly, the weapons inspectors would then count the weapons or count the amount of agent that they had. But by access to other Syrians, people in the military that they may be able to interview or documents, they could test the veracity of that.

They can also go to other countries that may have data, for example, countries which may have sold Scud missiles to the Syrians, and they could provide data on how much they had provided to the Syrians. There’s a number of angles that the weapons inspectors could pursue.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can you ever be sure that you have got them all? Or how would you know?

CHARLES DUELFER: Well, we were never sure in the case of Iraq.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

CHARLES DUELFER: And it turns out that we did a hell of a lot better than we thought.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

CHARLES DUELFER: But certainly under the current circumstances with Syria, we can get the number down a lot better than it is now. And by that whole process, Syria will lose the advantage of having these chemical weapons.

It’s a major step now that they have even acknowledged that they have such stocks. This is quite a sizable achievement by the Russians.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the case of Iraq, you had a kind of cat and mouse game. You have written about it. Is it possible or even likely that something like this would happen in Syria?

CHARLES DUELFER: We will have to see. Certainly, the weapons inspectors would have to take that into — as one of the possibilities. And they would have to plan their inspections in certain ways so that they can take account for the possibility that they’re still hiding something.

Nevertheless, you can reduce the uncertainty, you can reduce the uncertainty a fair amount by accounting for munitions, by accounting for the production runs, the production equipment. Certainly, you can get rid of the bulk of the Syrian weapons capability.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another big difference here clearly would be that, I mean, from Iraq to now, this would taking place in the midst of a civil war. There would be fighting all around, presumably.

CHARLES DUELFER: And in establishing the ground rules for the weapons inspectors to go in the country, the burden of security would have to be on the government.

But I have to say that, presumably, that these are the most valuable and the secure things in Syria, that the army and the government would have them in areas that they can protect. And therefore they should be able to lead the weapons inspectors to those sites or bring those weapons to sites where the weapons inspectors can do what they need to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: How long would something like this take? You’re thinking about the president giving a talk tonight. If he decides to go this route and he has to explain to the public, how long does something like this take to verify and to get the weapons?

CHARLES DUELFER: Well, the first step is to negotiate the terms under which the weapons inspectors are going to operate. And that’s probably — at the rate of the U.N. doing it, that is going to be weeks, rather than days.

JEFFREY BROWN: Weeks?

CHARLES DUELFER: Weeks, I would guess.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just to negotiate how is this going to work?

CHARLES DUELFER: Just what access, who gets to pick the sites.

And there’s a fundamental point. Does this happen under the threat of a military attack? In other words, is it a coercive disarmament? Or, as the Russians seem to be saying, is — the threat of force has to be taken off the table first?

I think that’s solvable, because even if the threat of force is not explicit, it’s implicit in what has gotten us to this point.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s the big diplomatic question right now. But once they decide, if we get past these weeks of negotiations you’re talking about, how long does it take to go in and actually gain control of the weapons and the facilities?

CHARLES DUELFER: For the bulk of it, it will happen fairly quickly.

The U.N. can assemble teams. There are chemical weapons experts around the world. They have experience on this. They can be assembled. It will be clear early on if the Syrians are going to be fully cooperative, if they’re going to bring them to the sites where the bulk of these weapons are.

It could drag on over time, but there will be early indications I think, in the course of a month or two, that we will see if Syria is in fact serious. But again that assumes overcoming some diplomatic hurdles in the U.N.

JEFFREY BROWN: But a month or two. I’m asking you because we have been in sort of day-to-day mode here about thinking what might happen, but to really pursue this would be a matter of — a question of now months?

CHARLES DUELFER: For the weapons inspectors to get on the ground and begin getting a serious handle on the control of the weapons and what the inventories are, it would take that long.

But there will be early indications about whether Bashar al-Assad is serious about this. So the diplomats and the politicians will get an early indication of just if this is really going to work out.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Charles Duelfer, thanks again.

CHARLES DUELFER: Thank you, Jeff.