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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Removal Of Syria’s Chemical Weapons Underway

A woman sits on a chair on a pier in front of the Norwegian frigate Helge Ingstad approaching the port of Limassol in the east Mediterranean island of Cyprus on January 6, 2014. Danish and Norwegian naval vessels head for waters off Syria again in readiness to escort a delayed shipment of key chemical weapons for destruction. (Yiannis Kourtoglou/AFP/Getty Images)

The Norwegian frigate Helge Ingstad approaches the port of Limassol in the east Mediterranean island of Cyprus on January 6, 2014. Danish and Norwegian naval vessels head for waters off Syria again in readiness to escort a delayed shipment of key chemical weapons for destruction. (Yiannis Kourtoglou/AFP/Getty Images)

Germany announced today that it will accept and destroy some of the waste materials created by dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

That comes on the heels of a report from the Syrian government saying that insurgents had attacked two chemical weapons storage sites.

Syria agreed last year to hand over all of its chemical weapons and materials to the international community for destruction.

Officials are confirming that a Danish ship carrying the first batch of those chemical materials set sail from the Syrian port of Latakia this week.

The shipment of 560 tons came more than a week after the December 31st deadline for removal passed. The delays were caused by inclement weather and war.

In all, more than 1,300 tons of weapons are expected to be removed by a flotilla that includes ships from Norway, China and Denmark.

Dr. Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the Monterey Institute, joins Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss the process of transporting and destroying chemical weapons.

Guest

Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

Well, let's turn now to Syria and its chemical weapons. Germany announced today that it will accept and destroy some of the waste materials created by dismantling Syria's chemical arsenal. Syria agreed last year to hand over all of its chemical weapons and materials to the international community for destruction.

Also this week, a Danish ship carrying the first batch of those weapons set sail from Syria. Amy Smithson is with the Monterey Institute's James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. And Amy, explain the importance of Germany's announcement today. As I understand it, they are not taking chemical weapons but waste materials.

AMY SMITHSON: Well, this is one of those things that has been sort of confusing since this endeavor started. Syria did not declare any filled chemical weapons. So the materials to be destroyed fall into two general categories. One is mixed warfare agent, like mustard gas and the precursors for sarin, which will be destroyed aboard the USS Cape Ray. And the other are a variety of chemicals that feed into a chemical warfare agent, and those are the types of chemicals that I believe Germany has indicated it would be willing to destroy.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, officials have confirmed that a Danish ship carried the first batch of these chemical materials from a Syrian port this week. Do we know what was actually on this Danish ship? I mean I'm seeing some reports are calling the batch a priority.

SMITHSON: Yes, there are two different designations that are also being put into this equation. One of these are priority chemicals. And that is the mustard gas and the sarin precursors. The other chemicals, again, are those constituent chemicals that feed into warfare agents. And my understanding is that this Danish cargo ship has taken some chemicals out into international waters, and it's kind of waiting there, escorted by a Russian and Chinese warship, if not in addition a Norwegian warship, until additional chemicals make their way to the port of Latakia.

At that point it'll come back in, probably pick up more chemicals and wait until it has a full cargo.

CHAKRABARTI: This is clearly a fully international effort. How is the division of labor being decided amongst all these countries when it comes to disposing of Syria's chemical weapons?

SMITHSON: The U.N. special coordinator for this, Sigrid Kaag, has, I think, done an excellent job, as has the director of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Ambassador Uzumcu. They have essentially made many approaches to governments around the world that we know have capabilities to assist in this situation.

There are a number of countries that have expertise in destroying chemical weapons, many of them in Europe, because of the widespread use of chemical weapons in World War I. That's why the Germans still have this capacity, the Belgians. Unfortunately, these weapons are still found by farmers and fishermen because they end up remaining in place whenever recovered from the battlefield or being drug up by fishing nets.

And so there are capacities to destroy old weapons. And in the Asian theater, the Japanese have been destroying the weapons that they left behind in China during World War II. So they also have expertise in this area, as do the countries that declared chemical weapons and have destroyed them under the auspices of the chemical weapons convention.

CHAKRABARTI: Interesting, and here we are in 2014, of course, 100 years after the start of the First World War. Amy, finally, if we can just step back here for a moment. What's your biggest concern about this international effort of getting the chemicals out of Syria right now, because I mean there is still a brutal war going on there.

SMITHSON: Well, I have two. One is the security of getting these chemicals to the port of Latakia. There have been two public announcements now that the storage sites are being attacked, one by the Syrian government and one by the Russian government. And so we know that the security situation is very, very tense.

My other concern, quite frankly, is that the Syrian government didn't completely forfeit its program. That's an issue we'll probably address later, after these chemicals are hopefully gotten safely to the port of Latakia.

CHAKRABARTI: Amy Smithson is a senior fellow at the Monterey Institute's James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Thank you so much.

SMITHSON: My pleasure.

CHAKRABARTI: And you know, we always welcome your input on anything you hear on this program, about the disposal of Syria's chemical weapons, about what Chris Christie said regarding that bridge scandal. Let us know at hereandnow.org. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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