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World's Chemical Weapons Watchdog Clears Syria


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Syria has handed over the last of its declared chemical weapons. That's according to the world's chemical weapons watchdog. The move is a key step in a deal negotiated last fall, after the U.S. had threatened to conduct airstrikes against Syria. But many questions remain about Syria's use of chemical weapons and whether remnants of its chemical stockpile remain. Joining me to discuss all this is NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. And Geoff, what exactly was achieved here?

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Well, today the last of Syria's declared chemical stocks were loaded aboard a Danish transport ship and carried out of the country. You may recall last year, that Syria signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention as part of a deal brokered by the U.S. and Russia. And as part of that sign up process, they declared 1,300 metric tons of chemical weapons and chemical weapons ingredients. The last of it was moved out of the country today. Of course, there may still be undeclared stocks in the country. But from an international diplomacy standpoint, this marks an important turning point in the disposal of Syria's chemical weapons.

CORNISH: All right, so these chemicals are moving out of the country. Where do they go now?

BRUMFIEL: Well, for the most part, these aren't actually weapons. They're ingredients used to make weapons. The least dangerous ones are going to industrial disposal sites in the U.S. and Europe. But the most dangerous ones are actually being taken to Italy. And they will be loaded aboard a U.S. Navy vessel that's been outfitted with special disposal equipment. This equipment is designed to both dilute and deactivate the toxic chemicals. It's never been tried before. See, it's going be a tough job. But the U.S. believes it's up to the task.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, Geoff, there have also been allegations of new chemical attacks in Syria. Help us understand how there can still be attacks if the chemicals are being shipped out of the country.

BRUMFIEL: So the attacks in question involve chlorine. Now, the chemicals shipped out are sarin, mustard gas. These are things that are classified as chemical weapons. But chlorine technically isn't. It's an industrial chemical that can be used as a chemical weapon. And so the Syrian government never really had to declare its chlorine stocks. Now, international investigators have gone in to look into whether chlorine attacks occurred. But they themselves came under attack. They were even briefly taken hostage. So they were never able to get to the bottom of what was going on. Nevertheless, they do believe that the chlorine is being used in Syria.

CORNISH: So Geoff, you're saying there are the industrial chemicals and possibly undeclared chemicals still inside Syria with Islamic militants now in control of territory inside Syria and Iraq. Is there concern? Is it possible that they could get a hold of some of these chemicals?

BRUMFIEL: Yes, there is. But actually the larger concern may be in Iraq. Last week, the extremist group, ISIS, took control the old Iraqi facility called Al-Muthanna. And this facility has two bunkers filled with old munitions. These bunkers are extremely dangerous. There's explosives in them. There may be chemical agents. They've been sealed. But nonetheless, this shows that chemical weapons continue to be a big threat in the region.

CORNISH: That is NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.