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Weapons Inspector Points Out Challenges Facing Deal On Syria


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Let's get an assessment of the weekend deal between the United States and Russia on chemical weapons in Syria.

GREENE: David Kay inspected Iraq for weapons of mass destruction once after the Gulf War in 1991, and a second time after the U.S. invasion in 2003.

INSKEEP: Now, like the rest of us, he is watching as the U.S. and Russia promise to push for immediate inspections in Syria. He's in our studios. Welcome to the program, once again.

DAVID KAY: Happy to be here.

INSKEEP: OK, so this agreement, to summarize, says that Syria has to list its chemical weapons stockpiles in a week, remove them pretty fast, and there will be immediate inspections at all sites in Syria. Is that realistic?

KAY: It's extremely optimistic. It's an aggressive timeline. It's aspirational in terms of what you would like to happen. I'll tell you why I think it's important. The big question about this deal is: Are the Syrians and the Russians serious about it? Or are they going to throw roadblocks? You have a number of deadlines that have to be met by certain dates. For example, this week, you have three, in this very same week, that are important deadlines that will test the Syrians and test the Russians.

That's important to know. You don't want to be strung around.

INSKEEP: And you're saying that these deadlines are extremely optimistic. If the Syrians start missing them, is that actually to the advantage of the United States, you can put more pressure on?

KAY: No. The advantage of the United States and everyone else is that this deal be fulfilled, that we remove chemical weapons as quickly and completely as humanly possible. I don't think anyone should hope that the Syrians or their Russian allies miss deadlines.

INSKEEP: But are they - but you said they're not very realistic. Are we likely to see deadlines missed?

KAY: Well, the most unrealistic deadline is that by June of next year, you will have destroyed all of the chemical weapons and their production facilities. We're still destroying our own stockpile, and we've missed every deadline. The same is true of the Russians. Libya, most people forget Gadhafi, nine years ago, while he was still in power, said I'll give up my chemical weapons.

We're still destroying them, and, in fact, we're still finding some that he refused to give up. The rebels, after his departure, said they discovered new chemical weapons. So it's hard to safely get rid of chemical weapons.

INSKEEP: What is the role of the inspectors here who are said to be able to go into all sites in Syria?

KAY: Well, the first role is to check and verify the Syrian inventory. The second thing is to talk to Syrians who were involved in the production of these weapons and verify, from a technical point of view, if that's actually what they produced. Then you get to the sites, you verify the inventory lists, and you secure.

And, let me say, securing is probably the most difficult thing to do, other than getting to the sites in the midst of a civil war. Securing means 24/7 presence of someone to be sure that people aren't breaking in. And in this case, you don't worry about just the Syrians. There are many elements - certainly the al-Qaida elements - of the rebel movement that have had aspirations for chemical weapons for well over a decade. So you just can't go in, put a tag on it, or even put a lock, and walk away and say they're secure.

INSKEEP: Wow. This makes me wonder if trying to secure them will actually make them more vulnerable, because it's going to become, over time, clearer and clearer where the Syrian government is storing its stockpiles.

KAY: Well, I think the rebels have probably had a reasonable idea, and the agreement - and no inspector would insist that the Syrians themselves remove their military forces from where these are stored. What you want to do is put an international presence there, along with the Syrian troops. Inspectors are never armed, so the security has got to be the responsibility of the Syrians and some mixed international element.

INSKEEP: You're talking about blue-helmeted guys from the United Nations, troops from some country, American troops, something?

KAY: Well, this is one of the lacunas in this agreement, which supposedly the Russians and the French and us are getting together this week to discuss. How do you provide that security? It can't just be technical. It's going to require someone with boots on the ground to monitor it.

INSKEEP: And that gets to one vital question that's been asked again and again. And if you could just give a basic answer: Is it remotely plausible to do all these things during a civil war, while the shooting is still going on?

KAY: It's challenging and it's dangerous, but the alternatives are all even worse. So you must try.

INSKEEP: And if the inspectors are fearful for their lives, do they go ahead with their mission, or do they just cancel?

KAY: My experience with inspectors is, look, you don't do this job if you've got a high level of fear. You're dedicated. I can say for the inspectors, they're not just Americans that I had on teams. They were people that devoted most of their life to eliminating weapons of mass destruction.

INSKEEP: David, thanks very much. That's David Kay, who inspected Iraq repeatedly for weapons of mass destruction. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.