The Challenges Of Weapons Inspections In Syria

Apr 17, 2018
Originally published on April 17, 2018 4:05 am
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Syrian state television is reporting that weapons inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, have been allowed into Douma. Douma, of course, is the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack earlier this month. Before today, Russian and Syrian officials had stopped the team from reaching Douma because the investigators didn't have the right U.N. permissions. Now, that kind of delay is one of the major challenges of this type of work. Jerry Smith knows this well. He's a former OPCW inspector who worked in Syria in 2013. He joined us earlier from Salisbury in the U.K.

All right. So we are seeing this in real time. The investigators can't just go wherever they want, whenever they want. This all has to be negotiated with the Syrian government, huh?

JERRY SMITH: Sure. Yeah. The key thing is with these kind of international investigations is it all requires a mandate, and that mandate has to be agreed by everybody. So, you know, these guys are not world police that can just go in anywhere. They have to be given the approvals and to make all their preparations and stuff entirely with the approval of the host state.

KING: But I would imagine an investigation like this is somewhat time sensitive. I mean, as the days go by, is it going to get harder to tell what happened?

SMITH: Yeah. I mean, again, with any investigation that's the case, and particularly with something like this. So, you know, if you think about how we have a police investigation in our country then, you know, the scene is cordoned off rapidly, we have access control there, we have the police starting to deal with the crime scene almost immediately. With something like this, we've had over a week now where people, lots of different people, we don't know who, may have traipsed in and out of that. And the other thing is that there is the potential for the material, if it is a gas attack or, you know, a chemical weapons attack then that material is degrading in the atmosphere. So every day the chances of getting good hits, good sampling becomes less and less.

KING: We should say that the mandate of the OPCW is not to determine who carried out this attack but simply to determine what weapons were used. Could their findings, though, shed any light on who might be behind this?

SMITH: Yeah. Absolutely. You know, as you said, the mandate is tight. It's about the what. It's not the who. This, again, is important because there has to be agreed in the international community. And, you know, we've got a whole bunch of stakeholders, some of whom don't agree with each other. You know, the Syrian government on one side, and Russia and Iran, and then the U.S., U.K. and others on the other. So yeah, really complex. And what they need to do then is just arrange and agree and go for the investigation as soon as they can.

KING: Yeah. A complex situation that you have actually found yourself in the center of, right? You went to Syria in 2013 to lead an effort to get Bashar Assad to give up his chemical weapons. He did hand over more than a thousand tons of chemical weapons by some estimates. Is it clear to you now that he withheld some or made new ones?

SMITH: Well, you know, going back to that time there, you know, I guess President Obama had a tough call to make. He had the options to either accept the Syrian declaration - and I guess he would have had some pretty major intelligence on what the U.S. and the West thought Syria had - or to go for the bombing option. You know, Syria was not, or, the Syrian government was not in the position of power it is now. So I guess you look to that and a risk assessment, say, well, if we bomb we might not get very much out, and we may even have to send in troops to secure. So let's get out what Syria declares. Have they kept some back? Well, there's a distinct possibility, and I think sadly we've seen a few events over the past few years where sarin has been used - and that's been demonstrated quite clearly by the U.N. guise - and therefore it would appear that some's been kept back. I guess the alternative is that they've made more, but I suspect the former is the more likely.

KING: Jerry, how realistic do you think it is that the West could prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again without actually removing him from power?

SMITH: I think that's a tough one. Essentially, you know, the genie's out of the bottle. Chemical weapons are a bully's weapon. They're not for modern-day warfare from any of the advanced countries, but they could still be used by bullies. It's a tough one to prevent them from doing it.

KING: Jerry Smith is former weapons inspector who founded the security firm RameHead Consulting International. He joined us via Skype. Jerry, thanks so much.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.