Verifying the Extent of Syria’s Chemical Arsenal Could Be Big Challenge

The U.S. and Russia delved into the "nitty-gritty" of how to handle Syria’s chemical arsenal, nearing a basic diplomatic understanding. Meanwhile, it was reported that forces have been moving weapons around in Syria. Jeffrey Brown talks to Michael Gordon of the New York Times and Julian Barnes of the Wall Street Journal.

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    Now back to Syria and prospects for a deal in Geneva.

    Jeffrey Brown has more.


    Even as Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov resumed talks today, The Wall Street Journal reported that a Syrian military unit was scattering the country's chemical weapons stockpile.

    For the latest on that and on the talks, I'm joined by New York Times diplomatic correspondent Michael Gordon in Geneva and Wall Street Journal military reporter Julian Barnes.

    Michael Gordon, let me start with you. Let's talk first about the progress there. Where is there general agreement so far regarding Syria's weapons and what should be done about them?

  • MICHAEL GORDON, The New York Times:

    Well, Secretary John Kerry has been meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

    And what is interesting is they both brought teams of arms controls experts from both sides. So, they have really been getting into the nitty-gritty of this. The general expectation is they're going to announce some sort of diplomatic understanding between the two sides tomorrow on how to approach Syria's chemical weapons stocks, how to control them, how to destroy them.

    And there was progress on at least agreeing on how much Syria has by way of chemical weapons, which was an important point of contention between Russia and America. That said, I think it's going to be very important to see the fine print of this agreement tomorrow, because the task of dismantling Syria's chemical weapons is really highly problematic, especially in the context of a civil war.


    But when you say nitty-gritty, for example, earlier this week, I talked to former weapons inspector Charles Duelfer, and he was talking about the importance of such things as who decides which sites can be inspected and whether the inspectors can talk to anybody, scientists over there, or whether those are withheld.

    Do you think they're at that level of negotiation at this point?


    I don't think so. They have been here two days, and it's difficult to elaborate basically a year's worth of arms control agreement in two days.

    But what I expect is they will enunciate some general principles. For example, Secretary Kerry wants the Syrians to turn over data on their chemical weapons stock right away, instead of waiting up to 60 days they would have under the terms of the treaty. And I think there will be some important principles laid down.

    But it would also be my expectation that there would be a lot of this additional work to be done. And, as you just pointed out, cheating by the Assad regime is going to be a major concern. I mean, how can the West really know that he's declared all of his stocks and he hasn't hidden any of it? That was a big challenge in Iraq, and it's going to be a big challenge in Syria.


    Well, and speaking of that, Julian Barnes, today, you reported that a special Syrian unit has been moving the weapons around. What do we know so far?

  • JULIAN BARNES, The Wall Street Journal:

    This unit is called Unit 450.

    It's an elite, a small group, an elite group within Syria, all of the Alawite sect, all very loyal to Assad. And within recent weeks, as the threat of U.S. military force mounted, they started dispersing chemical weapons around the country.


    Let's bring up a map that we have that we have shown our audience before, so you can use that. This is from a year ago which shows very few facilities. And what's been happening since then?


    That's right, so we have seen quite an evolution since that time, so from, say, seven major sites to about 24 major sites now, and another two dozen smaller sites.

    They are in almost all parts of the country. They're in the north, the south, and even a couple in the east, where there's much less solid regime control.


    And how much is U.S. intelligence able to keep track of what's going on?


    This is a great debate. I mean, the U.S. has been saying we have a good idea where most of this is. But that's starting to shift.

    In recent days, as this — chemical weapons have been pushed out, there's a lot more doubt that they know exactly where all the stocks are. And that's going to be important to this verification process.


    Are there any signs even in the last day or two as the Geneva talks are under way whether that's having an impact either in making more movement or freezing things for the moment?


    What U.S. officials have told me is that this week, as the diplomatic process got going, as the threat of military force was reduced, that movement stopped. They saw it last week. They didn't see it this week.

    And the theory is either Assad moved the chemical weapons where he wanted them, or without the threat of an imminent attack, there was no more need to move them.


    Now, Michael Gordon, back to you.

    There had been reports, you had been reporting about a potential larger deal here of a peace conference that goes even beyond the chemical weapons issue. Where does that stand now?


    Well, this is a very interesting question that you have.

    I mean, there are really two things going on. One is trying to figure out how to control Assad's stock of chemical weapons so that he doesn't use it again, and I think the evidence that he did use it is persuasive, and also eventually get rid of it. But the other question is how to solve and resolve and come up with a political settlement that stops the civil war in Syria, because virtually everyone has been killed in Syria, like 99 percent of them have died at the hands of conventional weapons, not chemical arms.

    And there was a meeting today, a three-way meeting between Secretary Kerry, Mr. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and Lakhdar Brahimi, who is the U.N. representative. They agreed there is going to be another meeting in New York in the middle — toward the end of September, but Secretary Kerry made the point that if there is going to be a Geneva peace conference, a resolution or progress on the chemical weapons issue is an essential prerequisite for making headway on a peace conference.

    Now, that said, I think the chances that a peace conference is going to achieve a breakthrough at this point is extremely slim, because Assad is in control, and he's not about to yield power. And I also think the Syrian opposition feels a bit, I would say, betrayed by the fact that the United States has pulled back on its military threat, and is seeking a deal with the Russians, which, after all, is the major power that's been arming Assad.

    I'm not justifying the opposition's position. I'm not taking a stance on that. I'm just representing how they feel. So, getting them to the talks I think is going to be a difficult undertaking.


    And, Julian Barnes, you have been reporting from the Pentagon all these last days and weeks. What is the — given all that we're talking about right now, what is the posture there? What are they saying about the readiness or the sense of whether strikes may or may not happen?


    Well, the readiness is still there.

    They still have all the ships, four ships in the Med, an aircraft carrier in the Red Sea. They were extended this week to stay there longer, but the feeling is that we are much less likely to see a military strike now. The mood is just skepticism that it's going to come to that.


    All right, Julian Barnes here, Michael Gordon in Geneva, thanks so much for joining us.


    Thank you.