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Chemical Weapons Declaration May Offer ‘First, Key Tipoff’ of Assad’s Intentions

September 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Syrian government said it will comply with the U.S.-Russian deal, which puts the burden on Syria to declare the size and location of its chemical weapon stockpile. Gwen Ifill talks to Charles Duelfer, a former UN weapons inspector, about likely complications and the new UN report confirming a chemical attack near Damascus.



GWEN IFILL: For some insight on that, we turn once again to Charles Duelfer, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq who also led the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group.

Welcome back to the NewsHour.

Now, help me with this. This framework allows for all of these weapons to be secured, removed by mid-2014. How would that work?

CHARLES DUELFER, former chief U.S. weapons inspector: Well, the framework does one key thing. It puts the burden on the government in Damascus.

They are the ones who are obligated to declare what they have. They are the ones who are obligated to concentrate the weapons and locations as determined by the weapons inspectors. The task of the weapons inspectors is to verify what the Syrians have declared. That’s a key transactional flow there.

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GWEN IFILL: And putting the burden on the government in Damascus, is everybody completely dependent on Assad to tell the truth about where the weapons are?

CHARLES DUELFER: No. There’s one remarkable thing that came out of Geneva. And that is that Secretary Kerry said Foreign Minister Lavrov said that their intelligence assessments about the inventories of Syria were quite similar.

So when Syria takes this first initial step in the next few days of offering up a declaration of what they have, we will get a very quick indication of whether it comports with what the assessments are. And that will be a first key tipoff.

GWEN IFILL: Now, the United Nations report itself didn’t establish complicity. It didn’t point the finger directly at the Assad government.

We have seen many other nations, and including the national security adviser late this afternoon, Susan Rice, come out with a statement saying, but we know this. How do we know this?

CHARLES DUELFER: Well, there’s a lot of information which is available to the United States which wasn’t available to the weapons inspectors.

There’s all the mechanism of the intelligence community that can be applied to this, such as radio communications. They might have data about the trajectories of these rockets and who was at the launch point. The unique quality of the U.N. information is that it is seen as credible by all parties.

Nevertheless, when you look at the report and the details of it, particularly about the details about the munitions used, it does tend to point to an organized group, as opposed to some ad hoc report who are just cooking these things up in a basement.

There were at least two types of rocket munitions used, and that this tends to suggest a military operation, as opposed to a rebel organization.

GWEN IFILL: Well, here’s another complication. I’m just here to bring complications to you. How do you move weapons such as this during the middle of a civil war, where conventional weapons are flying everywhere?

CHARLES DUELFER: Well, not all of Syria is in the midst of conflict, and presumably Bashar al-Assad will keep his most important weapons in areas which are secure.

In comparing this with Iraq, there’s a huge advantage, which makes the Syria case simpler, in fact. Iraq had been undergoing a lot of bombing for months. The place had been bombed, weapons depots, bunkers, the military bases, administration facilities. When the inspectors first went into Iraq, that place was a mess.

In the case of Syria, the weapons presumably are concentrated in a few locations. The requirement to move people safely will be on the part of the government. So, in some ways, this will be easier. The initial step of getting a declaration is critical. The next step will be to have the government concentrate these weapons at certain places and hand over control to the international community.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned Iraq. How does this compare to Syria, another place where the leader came out and said I’m going to give up my weapons and then someone had to enforce that?

CHARLES DUELFER: Well, I think implicitly or explicitly, the threat of force is there.

Certainly, Bashar al-Assad will have noticed that the president gave a speech basically saying he was going to conduct a military strike. In the book of Obama, I think he is guilty, but he suspended the sentence. So whether or not the Security Council agrees to the use of force, the United States will.

We have done this before. In 1998, President Bill Clinton conducted a unilateral — well, with the assistance of the U.K. — punishing raid on Iraq for not complying with U.N. weapons inspectors at that time. So, that disincentive is there. The incentive, however, is different. There’s no sanctions that are levied on Bashar al-Assad now which would be lifted, as was the case with Saddam Hussein.

GWEN IFILL: A week ago, literally one week ago, we were sitting here in the studio talking about Assad’s interview with Charlie Rose in which he said, weapons? What weapons? I have no — I cannot tell you anything about chemical weapons.

Now, a week later, we are talking about what he will do with the chemical weapons he has now admitted to having. How far have we come? How surprising are you — how surprised are you that we have come this far in a week?

CHARLES DUELFER: That’s an astonishing change.

And with all due respect, you have got to give credit to Sergei Lavrov for that. Here is a guy who spent five years at the United Nations as the Russian ambassador at the U.N. He went through all of the Iraqi crises with the weapons inspectors and in the Security Council.

You know, he put in play this idea of having Bashar al-Assad give up his chemical weapons. Only the Russians could have convinced Bashar al-Assad to do that. That acknowledgment was a key change, so the whole dynamic is now different.

GWEN IFILL: Does this deal in any way undercut the rebels and their ability to conduct a civil war which will oust Assad?

CHARLES DUELFER: Gwen, you raise the issue what is the positive incentive for Bashar al-Assad?

If I had to imagine a conversation that Lavrov would have with him, I would say that he probably is saying, look, your best chance at survival is to increase your international legitimacy. The one way you can do that is by opening up your chemical weapons. The counter to that is, over that same period in time, while Bashar al-Assad is perhaps increasing his legitimacy, the rebels will be decreasing theirs.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Charles Duelfer, thank you so much once again for clearing that up for us.

CHARLES DUELFER: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: To the extent it can be cleared up.