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Chemical Weapons And The Syrian Civil War


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. As more and more of Syria slips out of government control, concern deepens over what's believed to be an enormous stockpile of chemical weapons. Last weekend, several reports cited suspicious activity at some chemical weapon sites in Syria.

On Monday, President Obama issued a sharp warning. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke again today reiterating that their use would cross a red line. And U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned of huge consequences if forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad used such weapons.

So what kind of chemical weapons does Syria have? How much? What do they do? And what are those consequences that might follow. If you have questions about Syria's chemical weapons, 800-989-8255 is our phone number, email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the newest member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, a catcher who didn't use a glove, a mask or pads. We'll also remember composer and pianist Dave Brubeck. But first chemical weapons in Syria's civil war. We begin with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, with us here in Studio 3A. Tom, welcome back.


CONAN: And many will remember assurances about the presence of chemical weapons in Iraq in 2003, which turned out to be of course untrue. Is there any doubt about these stockpiles in Syria?

BOWMAN: I've not seen anyone doubt that, and Syrian officials, themselves, back in July said they would use their chemical weapons against an invading force, they would never use them against their own people. So they've acknowledged that they do have chemical weapons. A lot of the concern is about nerve agents, sarin in particular, which can kill in minutes. So that's the big concern.

And again, no one is I've seen has doubted that they do have them.

CONAN: And what were these suspicious activities we heard about last weekend?

BOWMAN: Well, we don't know exactly what was going on. We know back in September they were moving some of their chemical munitions, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he believed they were being moved to make them more secure. This time around, all we know is it's activity, and it must be a lot of activity for President Obama to come out and Secretary of State Clinton to come out.

There were some reports that they were actually combining the elements of sarin to put them in the artillery shells or missiles. The Pentagon has knocked down those reports. So right now all we know is some sort of serious activity.

CONAN: You mentioned sarin and it needs to be mixed. What do they have?

BOWMAN: Well, hundreds of tons of sarin, in particular, mustard agent, as well. It's a blistering agent that's been around since World War I. It can blister the lungs and cause damage to the lungs and nasal passages. The sarin is of course deadly, can kill in minutes. It's what Saddan Hussein used against Iranian forces in the 1980s and later killing hundreds, if not thousands, of Kurdish men, women and children in northern Iraq in the 1980s.

CONAN: (Unintelligible), yeah.

BOWMAN: Right. And of course some may remember the cult in Tokyo, Aum Shinrikyo, who used sarin in the Tokyo subway, killing a number of people.

CONAN: So where are these weapons stored?

BOWMAN: Dozens of sites throughout the country. The American officials hope they're secure. And one of the things I've heard talked about by military officials is if they start to see these things getting loose, the Americans and others could somehow reach out to these Syrian soldiers and their own commanders and basically say, stay put, maybe we'll triple your pay, just make sure these weapons stay secure, don't listen to your commanders.

CONAN: There's another way they could get loose, that's if they are taken by rebel forces.

BOWMAN: And that's a concern, and a particular concern is them falling into the wrong hands, the hands of al-Qaida or other terrorist groups. And Israel, of course, is very concerned about that since they're very close to Syria, of course, and the sense is that if that were to happen, if they started falling into the wrong hands, that some sort of military action could take place.

Now that could be sending teams in of Special Operations Forces to seize these sites. It could be bombing some of these sites. But that, of course, creates its own problems. You could perhaps release a toxic cloud that could spread over some of the neighboring countries.

So it's - one official I talked with said this is what keeps me up at night. They're very, very worried about this.

CONAN: I've read several times, a number, that if the United States wanted to send forces in to secure these chemical weapon sites, an estimate that 75,000 American troops may have to be involved. It sounds to me like one of those numbers that a Pentagon analyst has come out with: We really don't want to do this, so I'm going to make this a very high number.

BOWMAN: That's right, and again it would be - even if you had the troops, and it sounds highly unlikely that they would actually mount an operation with that many forces, tens of thousands of U.S. forces, and again you're not even sure if you'll get all of them because again there were dozens of sites spread all around the country. The likelihood is that they started seeing leakage of weapons from one or two or a handful of sites, they could take some sort of an action.

Again, it doesn't have to be just U.S. teams. It could be, let's say, Jordanians and Turks working with Americans, or with rebel forces, to secure these sites. So there are many options being looked at now. And what we do know is there are some U.S. military personnel on the ground in Jordan addressing this very issue.

CONAN: There are all kinds of contingency plans, as well. Well, they plan for everything, Martian invasions probably, but the fact of the matter is they may have to rush forces there quickly. Are U.S. troops in position nearby?

BOWMAN: Right, and, you know, I was talking to a Marine officer not too long ago, and he was on a boat in the Mediterranean during the Libyan operation, and he said he and his Marine...

CONAN: By boat, you mean a helicopter carrier.

BOWMAN: Right, right, some sort of a Marine, Navy vessel with Marines aboard. And he was telling me that they were all set to go into Libya to secure one of their chemical sites. They were given the orders to do so. It wasn't necessary in the end. But there are always troops probably not far away that could go in, in a pinch, and circle some of these sites.

CONAN: Tom, stay with us. Here also with us in Studio 3A is Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. And it's nice to have you back on the program.


CONAN: I apologize for the circumstances. The size of Syria's arsenal, do we have any idea?

SPECTOR: Well, it's intended to be a military arsenal, to be used in battle. So that means hundreds of tons. That's what you would need to repel an invasion force or to use as an offensive capability against, let's say, Israel or some other regional state. So this is not just assassination, say, of small quantities. This is a very large-scale operation.

CONAN: And when we saw it used in World War I certainly, against the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war, these were used against standing armies, people in trenches, that sort of thing.

SPECTOR: That's correct. So the amounts are very large. They're intended to take on very large forces on the other side. Obviously you wouldn't need that in this particular context, but it just means the magnitude of what's available for use on the one hand is very great, and on the other hand trying to manage this very large quantity of material at so many sites and so many different kinds of ordinance, artillery shells, missile warheads and the rest, is really a very daunting undertaking.

CONAN: Are they - would they be useful in the kind of civil war Syria's conducting now against small groups of rebels?

SPECTOR: I think we all believe they may very well be useful in a very horrifying way. You could terrorize the population that's supporting the Syrian - the Free Syrian Army, so that they would abandon that, or they'd be so fearful. They would be - the troops, the Free Syrian Army troops are completely unprotected. So if they were ever used in a particular battle or, you know, to take over, seize, have Assad's troops take back territory, you know, either the individuals would be killed, or they would flee.

So they have some utility. The downside, obviously, is that there would be consequences, and this would not go un-responded to, and I think that's what we're hoping will cause Assad to be very, very cautious.

CONAN: Consequences, everybody mentions consequences, Tom Bowman, nobody says what they are.

SPECTOR: Well again, consequences could be some type of military action, again bombing some of these sites, let's say, sending some sort of force in, could be American, Jordanian, Turkish or rebel forces to secure these sites. Consequences could be sending this all to The Hague to a war crimes tribunal.

If you send that message to, not only Assad but to his generals and his officials, that you're going to go to The Hague for war crimes, that may make them think twice, or they may decide to defect as a result.

CONAN: They may be already facing war crimes trials for what they've done already. So this may not be relevant. Are there weapons that burn hot enough to burn these chemicals without causing a problem?

SPECTOR: Are they are hot enough to burn the chemicals...

CONAN: Yeah.

SPECTOR: ...but not hot enough to burn them without causing a problem in the sense that you might not get all, so there might be leakage from the partially destroyed weapons. Some of these weapons are being secured in bunkers, so they're not an easy target, and you have to worry about offsite consequences.

Some of the locations are isolated, but others may not be, or the weapons may be moved to areas where the fighting is going on, and if you were to take them out in that setting, you would risk civilian casualties of our own, so to speak, which would be a pretty awful outcome that we would wind up being the ones, conceivably, that would cause the first injuries of those kinds.

CONAN: There is - tom mentioned mustard gas, again dating back to World War I, sarin a more recent development. There is another kind of weaponized chemical weapon, VX. Is that - it's terrifying. Is that to be known in Syria's possession?

SPECTOR: Well, I think everyone believes it may well be. They know - it's known that they have experimented with it. They're tried to produce it. Whether they actually have an arsenal of it I think has not yet been fully confirmed.

The difference with VX is that it's a persistent agent. So if you lay it down somewhere, like let's say around a hospital or a line that you don't want the enemy to cross, they're going to be very difficult to do that for, you know, a number of days or weeks, depending on the particular circumstances.

CONAN: The United States and Soviet Union had stockpiles of chemical weapons during the Cold War. It was seen, at least in part, as a threat to force the other side to wear what we call NBC suits, nuclear, biological, chemical suits, that made it so awkward and difficult to operate under those circumstances. That's not what we're talking about here.

BOWMAN: Well, I think one indicator we'll be watching for is whether the Syrians are suiting up. And if you see that, you will fear the worst, and that could be potentially a trigger for some kind of intervention. The other side will not have protective gear. And we're not talking here just about a gas mask. VX and Sarin will attack the skin, and if you are - you know, if it touches you, you are - it's a lethal dose.

CONAN: We're talking about Syria, what chemical weapons the Assad regime may have, how much, what the consequences of their use may be. Our guests here in Studio 3A, Tom Bowman, NPR Pentagon correspondent, Leonard Spector of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

If you have questions about what Syria has and what it might be used for and how it might be countered, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. International concern is building over the possibility the Syrian government might deploy or even use chemical agents after reports of activity of known weapon sites.

There's U.N. treaty on chemical weapons that prohibits their development, production, stockpiling and use. Syria is not among the nearly 200 states that have signed on. Syria may have the Middle East's biggest chemical arsenal. Warheads carrying sarin could be the most worrisome.

So if you've got a question about what kinds of chemical weapons Syria has, how much, what the consequences might be, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent here at NPR; Leonard Spector of the Monterey Institute of International Studies are our guests. And let's see if we can go to - this is Mary(ph), Mary from Brookfield in Wisconsin.

MARY: Hi, I'm calling because I have a question. First of all, what proof do they have? And secondly, it sounds to me as though this is just another excuse for the United States to go in and invade another country. So what prove is it that they have that there are any chemical weapons? And I'll take my comments off the air.

CONAN: Mary, thanks very much, and Leonard Spector, as you heard Tom Bowman say earlier, one of their spokesman, what may have been a slip of the tongue, said we will never use our chemical weapons against our own people, they're strictly for foreign invaders. They have walked back from those comments, since.

SPECTOR: Well, I think what they've said is if we have them, we would only use them against foreign invaders. But I think the anxiety that we're observing, and it led to the president's warning, is something else is going on here, where they are readying them for some kind of use in the country, maybe not deliberately against their own civilians but against the rebel forces.

So I think we are emerging in a very difficult situation. I have to say that the Obama administration, I think, reflecting the kind of comment we've just heard has been pretty cautious about arming the rebels, about talking about intervention. I mean, he's been holding back very, very significantly except in this one area, which has been seen to be so horrifying that there might be a need to act.

And I would imagine we will get, probably very rapidly, approval from some kind of international organization like the Arab League, conceivably the U.N. although I think that's less likely, before we would actually take action. So this will not be, I think, a unilateral intervention. We will have some kind of additional political support.


BOWMAN: You know, Mary's right to raise a question about how do we know they have, you know, weapons of mass destruction considering what we've been through over the past decade. But everybody I talk with at the Pentagon, the last thing they want to do is invade Syria. They don't want to get involved in one more war in the region after 10 years of continual war.

They look at, you know, the ethnic makeup of the country, how do you separate the varying factions. You know, starting a no-fly zone for example would mean going to war, and then trying to separate everyone. There's no appetite, at all, for getting involved in war in Syria.

CONAN: Leonard Spector, as we found out after the invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein had destroyed his chemical weapons, the ones he did have previously, but didn't want to say that out loud. He wanted at least to have the, well, the idea that he might have chemical weapons as a deterrent against his enemies, primarily I guess Iran and maybe the United States, as well. Could there be some kind of scenario like that?

SPECTOR: Well these, the weapons that we're talking about in Syria have been talked about, sort of known about, I'd say, since the 1980s. So this has a very long history behind it. And I think we're all very confident that they exist. And for better or worse, it looks as if it make take actual use, as horrible as that might be, before there might be an intervention.

Now from one standpoint that's due caution, given our history of missteps in the past. On the other hand, it would be horrible to imagine that we would have to see 1,000 casualties before we might take action. So this is a very difficult moment for us, I think.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Patrick(ph), he's on the line from Houston.

PATRICK: Yes, sir. I was wondering, you said that they got their weapons in the '80s. How did they obtain them? And wouldn't it be more dangerous if they fell into the hands of the rebels, because aren't there extremists involved? And I'll take my answer off the air, thank you.

CONAN: OK, Patrick, thanks very much. The chemicals, where did they get them, Leonard Spector?

SPECTOR: Well, originally I believe they had support from the Soviet Union. They were a client of the Soviet Union, and chemical weapons were part of the Soviet arsenal. It was considered sort of a legitimate weapon at that time. Iraq also started that way and some other countries.

Over the years they became more capable of manufacturing the weapons themselves. There was some support from Iran, which mastered this during the Iran-Iraq war in the '80s. Some now from North Korea, it seems. So, you know, they've got a lot of indigenous capability, and they're getting some support from friendly states.

CONAN: Are these difficult chemicals to acquire or make?

BOWMAN: I think it's moderately difficult. The big problem when you have large quantities is large quantities of the precursor chemicals, the ones that come in, and it's thought that Syria has had problems acquiring those in bulk. But Iran, I believe, has offered to help with the manufacture of them in Syria. So that problem, you know, if everything else were equal would probably cease to be a problem in coming years.

A big issue is how do we avoid anybody winding up with these weapons, and I think we want to make sure if we can possibly can that as the rebels take over more territory, they ask for assistance in managing these weapons, and they sort of don't become part of the arsenal of the new government when it comes up, but sort of get moved into international protection and eventually elimination.

SPECTOR: And Patrick's right, these falling into the hands of certain rebels with more and more al-Qaida showing up into Syria, that's a very, very big concern now.

CONAN: Report today the State Department plans to put one group on the terrorist list, a group it estimates comprises nine percent of the forces inside Syria. So that's definitely a concern. Here's an email, this is from Margaret(ph): What chemical weapons, if any, have been used by the United States? What's Agent Orange? Who used it and where? What were the consequences for the user? And Leonard Spector, this gets back to the definition of what's a chemical weapon. Agent Orange, designed as an herbicide.

SPECTOR: Well, I think, you know, there is a sort of sliding scale in a sense. You know, weapons that are made deliberately for the purpose of killing other individuals, and there's a known list, there's a very classic list of these, mustard and sarin and tabun and some others. And then you have other toxic chemicals, some of them, I'd say, not intentionally used to kill individuals but to deforest certain areas in the Vietnam jungle with some very, very bad consequences.

And you have industrial chemicals today that are vulnerable. There is a big ammonia plant, for example, in Haifa, and there was fear during the 2006 war that missiles from Hezbollah would target that plant and that the gas that would emerge would, you know, be very, very dangerous for the citizens of Haifa, which did not occur, but it was a risk.

So I think we are talking about one stripe of these agents. Others have other dangers. And I think the idea that we have to be cautious using any of them ourselves, the United States, is good advice.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Mark(ph), Mark on the line from St. Louis.

MARK: Hi. Would it be possible to destroy these chemical agents from the air, you know, in a combination of bunker-buster bombs and napalm and incinerate them onsite without having to actually put boots on the ground?

CONAN: Leonard Spector said earlier there's some concerns. Tom, have you been talking with planners at the Pentagon about their problems or their concerns about that?

MARK: No, Leonard's absolutely right. The concern is that as you try to destroy some of these sites, it could release some sort of a toxic cloud that could spread around the region. So they're very worried about that. They have plenty of good munitions, bunker busters and others, that could take out some of these sites, but can you do it completely? That's the big question.

CONAN: There were in - people will remember - thanks very much, Mark, for the call - at the end of the first Gulf War, reports that some Iraqi chemical warheads may have released a cloud of chemicals that drifted downstream and affected some American forces, too. So this is clearly a live concern. Jerry's(ph) on the line, Jerry from Cookeville in Tennessee.

JERRY: Hi yes, Neal, two things. One, if Bashar al-Assad is as desperate as we know that he is, does he have any missiles with the capabilities of delivering these weapons to, say, like if we start putting troops in a spot, or if he just wanted to go after, say, troops in Jordan or in Turkey? And there was a general, he was Saddam Hussein's number two general, named George Sadah(ph).

Now, he said that Saddam Hussein moved, I mean, just all kinds of chemical weapons into Syria before he moved in, in '93, and Moshi Yalan(ph), the top Israeli general, said that Saddam Hussein moved chemical agents into Syria before we went in. So there's a lot of different ways that he could have got them, and he's a desperate man, and there's no telling what he'll do.

CONAN: Well, on the missile question, I think the brief answer to Jerry's question is, yes, but Tom Bowman believes there's some more.

BOWMAN: Yes. The sense is they have hundreds of artillery shells and missiles that could be used. And, again, one of the spokesman for the Syrian government said, back in July, they would not use them against their own people, but they would use them against any sort of invading force. So, clearly, there is a fear that they could be used, but, you know, we just don't know at this point.

CONAN: Just yesterday, NATO approved the positioning of Patriot missile batteries down along the Syrian border, the Turkish border with Syria, in part to intercept any missiles that might be coming over from Syria. They're, of course, effective against aircraft as well. Might - it's going to take several weeks for them to get there. Might that be putting some sort of deadline on - well, if he's going to use missiles against Turkey, he knows he's got a short period to do it.

BOWMAN: Yeah. I've heard it might take even longer than that, maybe into March before they're actually set up in Turkey. But, yeah, it could create some sort of a deadline. Again, the worry now is his back is against the wall, Bashar al-Assad. So what would happen once he is cornered? Will he just decide, as a last-ditch effort, to use these weapons? That's the real worry.

CONAN: Leonard Spector, what about the other part of that question? And that was did Saddam Hussein move some of his chemical weapon stocks into Syria prior to the invasion in 2003? These are, of course, the same branches of the Ba'ath Party. Both countries ruled by Ba'ath Party, but Ba'ath Party elements who despised each other.

SPECTOR: I've heard the rumors. I don't believe they have been borne out, but, in a way, it doesn't matter. There's so much - so many tons of chemical weapons in Syria today that if part of it happens to have been left over from something Saddam bestowed on Assad, the father, it's just icing on the cake in a certain sense. We've got so much to worry about right now that I think that subset of issues is not really in the forefront at the moment.

CONAN: Do you worry - we know that these weapons were used against Iranian troops in the Iran-Iraq War. We've seen some pictures from Halabja. We, of course, saw pictures from the Aum Shinrikyo attack in the Tokyo subways. But these are all remote, that people have become so, you know, distant from the idea that these weapons might be used that they're not concerned enough.

SPECTOR: I think there is a deep concern. And I think if we ever saw them used, and you had videos or whatever it's going to be that'll show us what happened - you see individuals suffering the effects of these, which would be very brief in the case of sarin, horrible but brief because it would lead to fatalities - I think the entire world would be stunned, and the problem wouldn't be building support to go in and do something about it. The problem would be, you know, holding back enough to be able to plan the operations properly. I mean, these are very horrific weapons, and if they are seen to be used, there will be an enormous humanitarian outcry globally.

CONAN: We're talking with Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and he is the James Martin - at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Also with us, Tom Bowman, NPR Pentagon correspondent. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an email, Staub(ph) from San Francisco: I served in the Golan Heights as a medic with the IDF - that's the Israeli Defense Forces. Next month will mark 20 years since my discharge. Even back then, we were training for the difficult conditions of chemical warfare because the next major war was clearly going to be with Syria, and we respected the Syrian soldiers for their thorough knowledge of fighting in chemical conditions. They were much better prepared than we were. Even then, we were fearful of their extensive stockpiles.

Does that make sense to you, Leonard?

SPECTOR: Well, it does, although I am surprised to hear that any troops are better prepared than Israeli troops as a rule. But this is the weapon that the Syrians used. It's their sort of last-ditch anti-Israel deterrent. And, you know, it's taken - it's been around for a long time, and there's been plenty of training and, you know, plenty of preparation. You see stories about sort of illicit acquisition of the various suits that are worn, protective suits and so forth. So this is a very serious capability on the Syrian side.

CONAN: Tom Bowman, the United States, as we mentioned, has stockpiles itself, which are in the process of being destroyed.

BOWMAN: Right. They've been destroying those for quite some time now at areas throughout the country. And I'm not sure what the status is on the destruction, but I'm pretty sure they're well on their way to removing all of it.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in. This is Kareem(ph), Kareem with us from Rockford, Illinois.

KAREEM: Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

KAREEM: Does the - is the Syrian government considered a legitimate government where it can defend itself? I mean, if the rebels are trying to take over, at what point can the government defend itself and, you know, even (unintelligible) force necessary if the rebels have weapons? You know, it's not like rocks here. They're using assorted weapons.

CONAN: The Syrian government says it is facing what it describes as terrorists. The rest of the world has described this, Tom Bowman, as a civil war. There are countries - France, for one - that has recognized the Syrian opposition coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The United States has said Mr. Assad has to go. They have not yet - maybe shortly, but they have not yet recognized the opposition coalition.

BOWMAN: That's right. And Russia, of course, is standing behind Syria, saying, this is an armed revolt against an established government. But you're right. The United States may recognize the Syrian rebel group in the coming days maybe, or weeks, and it's interesting to see how that may change the equation.

Would they then decide to not only give them diplomatic support, but maybe some sort of additional support of some kind beyond humanitarian support they're giving them now, communications equipment and so on? They've been - there's been a lot of pressure to give them more arms. That would be on the table, I think, if they recognize this group. So we'll just have to wait and see.

CONAN: Right. Kareem, thanks for the call. And one email question - back where we started - this from Richard(ph) in San Francisco: Listening to your guests, it appears we have less evidence of the existence of chemical weapons than in the case of Iraq - basically none. We - I asked Tom Bowman about that earlier. Leonard Spector, any doubt in your mind that Syria has major stockpiles of chemical weapons?

SPECTOR: There's no doubt, but I think the lessons of Iraq teach us to be extremely skeptical until we are completely confident that we've got a danger which is so profound and so immediate that we act. And I fear that the trigger will be actual use. That would satisfy the skeptics, sadly, but it would also mean that there would be some pretty horrible casualties on the side of the anti-Assad forces. So I think the question is well-taken. It's on everybody's mind. The history in the Iraq case weighs very significantly on our current situation.

CONAN: Leonard Spector of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, thank you for your time. Appreciate it.

SPECTOR: Thank you.

CONAN: And Tom Bowman, NPR Pentagon correspondent. Both of them joined us here in Studio 3A. Tom, we'll see you again.

BOWMAN: OK. You bet.

CONAN: Up next, the cult of the catcher. Newly minted Hall of Famer Deacon White played baseball in the 1800s and crouched behind the plate with only his bare hand between him and the baseball. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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