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Destroying chemical arms production ability is ‘significant step’ for Syria

October 31, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Destroying Syria's ability to produce and distribute chemical weapons has greatly reduced their capacity for damage. What lies ahead to complete the destruction process by 2014? Judy Woodruff talks to former U.N. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer for more on the chemical threat that remains in the volatile region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To help us understand this latest step toward disarmament, 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 program.

CHARLES DUELFER, Former Chief U.S. Weapons Inspector: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the fact that we are told that the Syrians have now dismantled their chemical weapons-making apparatus, what does that really mean?

CHARLES DUELFER: Well, it’s a significant step in an otherwise extremely bleak horizon.

There’s been one positive element of this, where people have agreed, and that is to get rid of the Syrian capacity to use chemical weapons. They have destroyed the capacity of Syria to produce and to deploy these weapons. That’s the first step. And what remains is, they have to get rid of the agent, that is, the stuff that you put into these munitions. And they’re on their way to getting a solution to that problem, which will probably entail removing it from Syria.

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But this is a sizable, significant step. The Syrian chemical weapons capability has been disabled.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were — but you were telling us today that they’re still — when we were talking with you — that there are still — you said it’s still a mystery in terms of what they might still have, what they might still be able to do. Explain what you meant by that.

CHARLES DUELFER: Well, there are going to be a lot of details which have yet to be thoroughly understood.

But the bulk of the issue has been dealt with. But, for example, there were these investigations into the use on August 21, where so many thousands — you know, hundreds of people were killed. The munitions which were used in those attacks, are those munitions which were declared and in fact destroyed by the current investigation? Or were they apart from that?

There’s a lot of small issues which remain to be resolved in this, details. The OPCW, the group that is conducting these disarmament activities, has not given a lot details on which facilities, which pieces of equipment, which munitions have been destroyed. Those details will tell a tale.

Nevertheless, there is good news here, and that is that the bulk of the Syrian capacity has been taken off the table. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, as of today, or now that this has happened, Charles Duelfer, what is the Syrian capacity for using chemical weapons? Is it completely off the table?

CHARLES DUELFER: The Syrian capacity right now is very small. If there were to be a use of chemical weapons right now, it would be very limited.

I think Bashar al-Assad took a political decision. He took a decision to get rid of this so that he could gain stature in the international community, probably under the advice of the Russian government. The Russian government, I don’t think, would have backed him on this if they didn’t think he was going to fully comply.

It wouldn’t be in Bashar al-Assad’s interest to be seen to be hiding something at this point. Nevertheless, these things will have to be investigated. The tough investigations probably are still down the road. And when I say tough, I mean going to sites which perhaps Syria hasn’t declared, investigating and interviewing people who were perhaps involved in this to really verify that they have gotten all the nooks and crannies of the C.W. capacity.

But those details shouldn’t take away from the significance of what has been done today. Seen from the outside, I should point out, if you’re a Syrian, you probably don’t care that much about this because, you know, from the Syrians’ perspectives, it would look like the international community prefers that they kill themselves with conventional weapons, as opposed to chemical munitions.

So there’s two ways of looking at this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because, in fact, chemical weapons apparently had been used, but they were a small percentage of the weapons that are being used to kill, as we just heard, more than 120,000 people over the last two-and-a-half years.

CHARLES DUELFER: Jeffrey Brown’s report was — was quite graphic in that.

The problem in Syria is much broader than simply chemical weapons. But getting chemical weapons off the table, the risk that they would fall into the hands of terrorist groups, that’s a significant achievement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But now there’s still — in terms of the chemical weapons, there are still a couple steps left in this process; is that correct?

CHARLES DUELFER: The key step is to get the agents, those components for sarin gas. It’s like an epoxy. You have to put pieces of it together. They need to secure those. And I think what is going to happen is, they will be removed from Syria.

Ambassador Tom Countryman said that he felt increasingly confident that the elimination of Syria’s capacity was achievable by mid-19 — 2014. And I think elimination in this case means not necessarily destruction in Syria, but removal from Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we also were reading today — I read a report in “Foreign Policy” magazine that the Syrian regime is asking, though, that about a dozen of these facilities that were making chemical weapons, that they keep control of those facilities, and they say they want to convert them to civilian use.

So where does that stand?

CHARLES DUELFER: That’s a natural reaction.

This happens with other countries. It happened in Iraq when we were disarming Iraq. The same facilities which can be used to produce nerve agent can be used to produce other legitimate civilian materials. It’s a very expensive hit to do this. The facilities are expensive. So if they’re destroyed, that’s a significant hit to the Syrian economy.

It’s a judgment call on the part of the inspectors whether they should allow Syria to do that or not. In the past, they have made decisions accepting that kind of an argument, and in other cases, they have not. It’s not a surprise, but it will require close inspection and monitoring over the long haul.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just finally, quickly, Charles Duelfer, you were also telling us today that this — this shines a light on the fact that there still are other countries in this region that still have chemical weapons.

CHARLES DUELFER: That’s correct.

And, you know, Syria’s now the 190th country to sign up for the Chemical Weapons Convention. The remaining ones that stand out are Egypt and North Korea. And North Korea is kind of in its own little universe, but Egypt is now going to stand out as one country in the region which — you know, there’s going to be some pressure on them to describe their position in these circumstances.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At a time when they’re facing a lot of political instability.

CHARLES DUELFER: And there are many issues swirling around Egypt and, indeed, the whole region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Charles Duelfer, thank you very much.

CHARLES DUELFER: Thank you, Judy.