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How Chemical Weapons Could Change Strategy For Syria


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Accusations that the Syrian government has repeatedly used chemical weapons against its own people are piling up. First were British and French officials who say they have credible evidence. Today, an Israeli military official joined the chorus.

The U.S. says it's evaluating the allegations. The stakes are high. Last year the Obama administration said the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer that could provoke a stronger U.S. response.

Meanwhile, Syrians continue to stream into neighboring countries. One refugee camp saw a riot over the weekend. The European Union is trying to improve conditions inside Syria by easing up on oil sanctions. In a moment we'll get an update on all this from Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies and author of the "Syria Comment" blog. Later in the program, one man's experience with massive, open online courses.

But first Syria. Joshua Landis joins us now from member station KGOU in Norman, Oklahoma. Welcome back to the program.

JOSHUA LANDIS: It's a pleasure being with you.

LUDDEN: So, let's talk about the most high-profile comments that have come out in recent days. What do you make of the accusations that the Syrian military has used chemical weapons against rebels repeatedly?

LANDIS: Well, there was an incident in a town near Aleppo, where about ten to a dozen people were killed by what looked like chemical weapons. Both sides accused each other. Israeli intelligence figures have said that aerial surveillance seems to show what they say is sarin gas. The U.S. government has repeated today that they're not convinced that this was chemical weapons.

Now, a lot of people have a big interest in the United States going in to get rid of Syria's, of Syria's chemical weapons. Obama clearly does not want to get involved in Syria. He's done everything he can to keep us out. He's giving more and more aid, but non-lethal aid. So this is a - you know, this is an ongoing concern, and particularly for Israel and the neighbors, who don't want chemical weapons to be used and particularly do not want them to fall into the hands of the rebel forces. Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, repeated many times that he doesn't not want them to get into the wrong hands, and by that he means Hezbollah, Hamas or any Islamic group, particularly al-Qaida, that might use them against Israel. And that remains an ongoing problem.

LUDDEN: Right. We're actually going to hear later in the program more about the difficulty of actually verifying allegations like this. But I mean, do you foresee that, you know, people are going to have to get to the bottom of this at some point, or where will this go in the absence of solid evidence?

LANDIS: The United States and Obama has tried to set this red line and let Assad know that it's - his name - his days will really be numbered if he does use them. Now obviously the question is, you know, some people have suggested maybe he's using some kind of riot gas or some new - it's unclear what he's actually - what is actually being used, and clearly America doesn't want to get involved.

So if it's just a few people by an accidental exposure or - it's unclear what - where the red line really is, and that's the desperate problem. And just next door in towns yesterday, over 100 people were being killed by regular weapons. And it's a mess.

LUDDEN: All right. Next door, you said, yesterday 100 people. Which next door? There's many neighbors there in Syria. Tell us what happened.

LANDIS: Well, there's been a number of fronts that have opened up, and the battleground has been moving towards Damascus. The regime has really dug in around Damascus. In Dar'a, south of Damascus, on the Jordanian border, there's been intense fighting the last several weeks. Rebel groups have been trying to take this very important strategic ground near Jordan.

We've read stories about the United States sending in greater and greater numbers, perhaps 200, more than 200, American troops to train Syrian rebels in Jordan, sending them back in. This has heated up the battle along the Jordanian border region, and Bashar al-Assad in Damascus does not want that region to fall into rebel hands because it means the battle gets closer to Damascus, the U.S. with Saudi money can reinforce rebel forces, and his days will be numbered if that happens. So he's fighting like mad to retake those territories.

There's also a number - another town on the Lebanese border, Qudsaya. It's a Sunni town close to Shiite areas, but it's a crucial linking region. It links up Damascus with the Alawite heartland along the Mediterranean coast. Assad does not want to lose that. If he loses that, he gets cut off between those two main territories: Damascus, the Alawite Mountains.

So he's battling like mad, and Hezbollah from Lebanon, Shiite forces, are assisting him in this attempt to retake Qudsaya, and he's battling for Dar'a near the Jordanian border.

LUDDEN: And meanwhile Syrians continue to leave the country. The numbers of refugees just mount and mount. Tell us about the impact this is having on, you know, neighboring countries. Jordan and Lebanon you've mentioned. They have vulnerable demographic landscapes, political landscapes, as it is. What impact are they feeling from this?

LANDIS: Well, hundreds of thousands of refugees have been pouring into Jordan, and there's been a 300 percent increase in the flow of refugees into Jordan. This is partly because of the greater intensity of the fighting around the Jordanian border, the higher stakes as America commits to training up troops in Jordan. It's also anxiety on the part of the United States and Saudi Arabia that the Jordanian monarchy could be vulnerable if violence from Syria overflows into Jordan.

And we saw riots in this major camp on the Jordanian border, which has hundreds of thousands of people in it. The U.N. has said they don't have the capacity, they don't have the people, and they've run out of money to take care of all these people. Over 2,000 new refugees a day are flooding across that border into camps. It's overwhelming, and there seems to be no end in sight.

The United States is talking about containment, trying to contain in Syria this violence so it doesn't overflow into Lebanon, destabilize the state there, into Jordan or Iraq. And it seems to be doing all of those three. Now, none of the states have been destabilized. The U.S. is increasing aid to the neighbors, as is Saudi Arabia.

So that's the game that's going on now is how to contain this into Syria and how to shore up neighboring states, but as we see, violence in Lebanon, Jordan and in Iraq, too, where the uptick of al-Qaida violence has been growing.

LUDDEN: OK, so put this in context. Just yesterday, European Union said it would ease some of their sanctions on Syrian oil. What's the aim there?

LANDIS: In the northeast of Syria, that's the region near Iraq, most of Syria's oil is located in that region. Rebel troops have taken over most of the oil wells. Some are in Kurdish hands, some are in Arab hands. Interestingly enough, a number around Deir ez-Zor, a major provincial capital, have fallen into the hands of al-Qaida or Jabhat an-Nusrah, this subgroup of al-Qaida.

Now, Europe wants to staunch the flow of refugees. How do you do that? You need to jump-start the Syrian economy. The United States and Europe both put very severe sanctions on Syria at the beginning of this uprising two years ago. These have had a devastating effect on the Syrian economy, causing it to implode.

Fifty - almost 50 percent of Syrian government receipts came from export of oil, which was the first thing to be sanctioned. To stop the flow of refugees, one needs to kick-start the economy. That means getting oil flowing again. Much of the oil has fallen into rebel hands. Europe and the EU wants to lift sanctions so that rebels can begin to export the oil and get a means of income that is not just from handouts from foreign powers.

LUDDEN: OK, and the idea is that this would trickle down to the population?

LANDIS: Yes and that it would fuel the rebellion and end this faster in the same way that in Libya, for example, we - Europe sequestered all of Gadhafi's money and then handed it over to the rebels once they recognized the rebels as a legitimate government, and that's how the revolution was fueled.

Something similar could happen in Syria. The trouble is that this region, the northeast region, is - has many Kurds and Arabs. It also has al-Qaida, as well as less - as non-al-Qaida rebels. So by opening this up, the - and letting the oil flow out, it is going to cause a scramble for control over this region, and already General Idris, the head of the military command of the Syrian opposition, the one recognized by the United States and Europe, has said he's going to send 30,000 troops to the northeast to secure all those oil wells and take them away from al-Qaida and take them away from Kurds and some tribal, Arab tribal chieftains.

So this is going to - you know, if that happens, it's going to start a civil war between different rebel forces.

LUDDEN: And actually increase the flow of refugees potentially, the opposite...

LANDIS: And, you know, it just - it underlines the terrible problems that we face and that the West face and that Syrians face in trying to bring some kind of central rule to their land and to defeat Assad. And so while Assad is going on this sort of this killing spree in the south, the rebels are talking about, oh, fighting amongst themselves in the northern - and it just - I don't know, it shows you how difficult Syria has become for Western policy people.

LUDDEN: And we hear the despair in your voice. So one more thorny, unanswerable question, I guess, before we let you. Reports earlier this week that the U.S. and its allies had some kind of an agreement on coordinating military aid to Syrian rebels. What's happening there?

LANDIS: Well, the United States has insisted over and over again it's not going to give military aid to the rebels. On the other hand, it is increasing its non-lethal aid, and it's sending that all to this General Idris, who's the head of the military command. But how do we know he doesn't use money for military means? It's all very foggy.

The United States has said, though, that it's very carefully planning with its allies - that means Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey - where lethal aid goes. They are supplying the lethal aid. The United States, the CIA says that it's coordinating with them. That means they're trying not to let it go into the hands of al-Qaeda, one of the larger fighting forces in Syria, and just keep it to friends of America.

So far there hasn't been great luck with that, but this is - you know, this is what authorities are trying to reassure the American people and to reassure Israelis, our allies, and others in the region that it won't get into the wrong hands.

LUDDEN: All right, Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. He runs the blog Syria Comment, and he joined us from member station KGOU in Norman, Oklahoma. Thank you so much.

LANDIS: It's a pleasure; thank you.

LUDDEN: Coming up, we'll hear more about the search for chemical weapons and how difficult the allegations of their use are to prove. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, I'm Jennifer Ludden. The White House today reiterated that it has not concluded that Syria's President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons inside the country. A spokesperson for President Obama says the administration is concerned about reports from Britain, France and now Israel that those weapons were used multiple times. He says the U.S. supports a U.N. investigation to find out.

That is a challenge in itself. Joining us now in Studio 42 is Amy Smithson; she's a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the author of "Germ Gambits: The Bioweapons Dilemma, Iraq and Beyond." Welcome to you.

AMY SMITHSON: Thank you for having me.

LUDDEN: So the Israelis, the British, the French, how are they getting the information, and what makes them think, as far as we know, that Syrians are using chemical weapons?

SMITHSON: Well, an Israeli military spokesman said that they had done a lot of their analysis by looking at photographs and making a determination by what they could see from the photographs. Having said that, there are a lot of things that will kill animals and also cause people to foam at the mouth, and that may not necessarily indicate a classic chemical warfare agent.

The French and the British have apparently gathered soil samples and have witness testimony, and they're characterizing that as credible but not definitive.

LUDDEN: Now, you say photos. Drone photos? Where are these photos from?

SMITHSON: No, I believe these are photos from the locals that have been published online.

LUDDEN: Ordinary citizens, or they're - who is taking the photos?

SMITHSON: They didn't specify who had taken the photos but just that they were making their analysis in part from photographs. And I think that's again a very sketchy thing to do. This is best determined in terms of what exactly was used by using soil samples and a variety of other samples.

LUDDEN: So what would you want, ideally, to prove this?

SMITHSON: Well, there's a U.N. investigative team, and if they get a chance to get on the ground, they'll be trying to get a variety of samples, including samples from any munitions or devices that might have been involved in these attacks, from clothing or respirator canisters, environmental samples from the soil, food and water, biomedical samples from humans or animals, and also crop or vegetation samples.

Chemical residues tend to stick around in the environment for quite some time.

LUDDEN: Now, what about - have there been, you know, people who've crossed over and been treated at different hospitals, maybe across the border, who have had doctors examine them and said what they think is happening?

SMITHSON: In what the British and the French have said and what the Israelis have said to date, they haven't really specified who. They've just talked about witness testimony. And in these circumstances, it kind of gives an entirely new spin on the phrase fog of war, because if you're a citizen and you're not very, you know, knowledgeable about chemicals, anything that blurs your vision, that causes you to cough, to be nauseous and to shake and collapse is going to perhaps in these circumstances sound like a chemical warfare agent.

But as a matter of fact, it can be any number of toxic industrial chemicals that might have caused such symptoms.

LUDDEN: Wow. Is there a team trying to gain access to find out more?

SMITHSON: Yes, what some of your listeners may be surprised to know is that the Syrian government requested, by letter, that the United Nations secretary general send in an investigation team, which is something he's had the authority to do for a couple of decades. And a team has been assembled, and it is pre-deployed in part to the island of Cyprus, and this is what has been happening, especially during the 1980s, on a number of other occasions, to try to find out the facts of what happened.

LUDDEN: OK, so the Assad regime has called for this?

SMITHSON: The Assad regime called for this particular investigation. There have been accusations by Syrian opponents that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons in the past, but that they would request this investigation may strike some as counterintuitive. But there have been other governments recently that have requested this investigation, the governments of Japan and South Korea, and I believe Luxemburg.

LUDDEN: In their countries or in Syria, we're talking?


LUDDEN: In Syria. So - but has this - why do we think the Assad regime requested the investigation, and what do they want to show? Because they've also accused the rebels, have they not, of using chemical weapons?

SMITHSON: Yes, one can turn this coin on several different sides. One can see perhaps that it would serve the Syrian government's interests if the team were to come in and not be able to point the finger at them, because for quite some time, especially since last summer's admissions that they would use chemical weapons if there were foreign intervention, and some people took that admission by the foreign minister as an admission that they possessed this stockpile that many governments widely believed they do in fact possess.

So they might think they can perhaps get away with it. But in that case, I would encourage them to read the fine print of the treaty, because here's where they could run into trouble and where many people trying to make this red line very bright in terms of whether or not chemical weapons were used.

Chemical weapons are defined in Article 2 of the treaty that bans chemical weapons as a munition or a device or a piece of equipment especially designed to distribute chemical warfare agents. But they're also defined as any toxic chemical, and that spreads this much larger than the classic warfare agents that everyone knows of, the nerve agents Sarin and VX and mustard gas, things that are specifically in a category that is prohibited except for - for defensive purposes.

But it spreads - that definition spreads it much, much broader, and so if indeed some toxic chemical is involved, that's still a no-no.

LUDDEN: Well, then you'd have to see if the Obama administration, for example, would agree that the use of this crossed the red line. I guess you could really get into the weeds here. But who is on this team that is poised to potentially go into Syria?

SMITHSON: Well, the leader of this team is actually a Swedish scientist that I've had the pleasure of interviewing for "Germ Gambits." His name is Ake Sellstrom, and he used to be the head of the Swedish Chemical and Biological Defense Research Institute. But he's also a veteran inspector from the United Nations Special Commission, which was established in the aftermath of the 1991 war to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles.

LUDDEN: Was he among the group that for years kind of we saw the cat and mouse game with people going into Iraq and then trying to find weapons that I guess in the end never exist - were there? But we watched that drama for years.

SMITHSON: They were there after the 1991 war. In fact the United Nations Special Commission oversaw the destruction of Iraq's chemical weapons stockpile, and "Germ Gambits" tells the story of how they did what nobody thought was possible, which is to find a covert biological weapons program. So they were pretty much stripped of weapons of mass destruction. Their nuclear program was arrested by UNSCOM as well, uncovered and arrested and stopped in the early 1990s, as opposed to in the 2000s timeframe.

But Ake has been in any number of tight pinches as an inspector. He has had to deal with very complicated technical issues, and he's also been in situations where senior Iraqi leaders were putting a great deal of political pressure on him.

LUDDEN: So do we expect them to gain access and...

SMITHSON: Right now there's a little bit of back and forth happening between the secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, who has gone beyond, in the opinion of some, what the Syrian government requested, which is an investigation of what happened at Aleppo.

He has talked about also sending this team to Damascus and to Homs, where other chemical incidents have been reported by the press.

LUDDEN: OK, so we have locations under dispute here. What happens if he gets there? What would he - give us a scenario. What would he go about doing? How do you proceed then?

SMITHSON: Well, first and foremost I think they're going to be looking for the remnants of any device that may or may not have been used to deliver this stuff. There have been public reports that there were missiles involved or rockets. And a lot of time you can literally reverse engineer from the fragments, just as what was happening in Boston when they were putting together this pressure cooker.

So you can tell what type of munition might have been involved in samples from the fragments of that munition, as well as get a number of other different types of samples from the people who were suffering from the attack or who had died during the attack.

LUDDEN: That does seem incredibly difficult. I mean you were talking much after the fact, and you're going to find little fragments, assuming they would just be left where they had exploded, I guess?

SMITHSON: This is a situation that is going to be terribly challenging. I imagine the continued hostilities in all of these areas will make it more challenging for the investigators. But at the same time, let's keep in mind that chemicals have a way of sticking around in the environment for quite some time.

Several years after the infamous attack at Halabcha, where Saddam Hussein attacked Kurdish civilians, they were able to prove from samples that he did indeed use chemical warfare agents.

LUDDEN: Really?

SMITHSON: Yes indeed.

LUDDEN: That's incredible.

SMITHSON: Paint chips.

LUDDEN: Paint chips.

SMITHSON: Yeah. That was some of the samples that they took from the site. They're what are known as degradation byproducts of chemical warfare agents. And if you run this through a machine called the gas chromatograph mass spectrometer - please don't make me spell it...


SMITHSON: ...then it will give you some pinpoint accurate analysis not only of a warfare agent but of the components that that breaks down into. And the same is true for any toxic chemical. There are registries of this information in libraries that are out there.

LUDDEN: And is this testing done on site? You know, I'm thinking of the person walking around with a little beep-beep-beep-beep-beep thing that...


LUDDEN: ...detects something.

SMITHSON: It's not quite like looking for coins at the beach with one of those magnetic detectors, but it is something where they do have field sampling kits and analysis kits. But what they're going to be doing - this team is likely to rely on the logistics of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. They do have field sampling, but that requires taking a heck of a lot of equipment into the field, which may be dangerous under these circumstances with hostilities still underway.

So chances are they're going to grab samples and send them off to that organization's stable of certified laboratories for analysis that will be very, very accurate.

LUDDEN: I guess, you know, if this is a lot of ifs here, I guess, there's high-stakes negotiations going on. But if they were to find evidence that chemical weapons had been used, what happens next? What...


LUDDEN: ...authority and...

SMITHSON: ...let's keep in mind that this is a technical investigation that's taking place in a rather politicized atmosphere. And at the end of the day, this is kind of like the - a police investigation being reported to a jury. And in that investigative report, you might see things, and I'm going to give you a paraphrase of a couple of the reports that came out of the investigations in 1988 when the secretary-general sent in a similar team to investigate allegations of use of chemical weapons during that war, and that had happened on a number of other occasions as well.

And in one case, what they were saying was that chemical weapons was - were used against Iranian positions, and they knew this from soil samples and from the fragments of weapons that they found. And in a second report in 1988, they said that they had found similar weapon fragments that have been used in attacks in 1984, 1986 and 1987, quote, "indicating their repeated utilization by Iraqi forces." Now, that's where the investigators have gone about as far as one can in naming a culprit. In this case, they were very, very certain. But in this - but in Syria, they may not be able to figure out who did what.

LUDDEN: Let me just remind people: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. That does raise the question: If you - even if you have this evidence - you've talked about paint chips and so forth - how do you then prove who - which side used them?

SMITHSON: If there's not a device that was involved in this, that opens all sorts of possibilities, and we can't ignore that there are other parties in this conflict that may have motivations to be able to point the finger at the Syrian government. Now, this is not an attractive thing to think of, but was someone else deliberately releasing either a warfare agent or a toxic industrial chemical in order to try to get outside intervention, more outside assistance, and that would be the Syrian opposition that one might think could consider that. I don't want to, but it's a possibility you can't rule out.

And another possibility is that this is something that just happened as the result of the exchange of, you know, bombs and artillery. These facilities that hold toxic industrial chemicals are located in and around many of these cities. And if something that's explosive goes off near one of these facilities, it could rupture a tank and cause a leak. In which case, it wasn't intentional, but the results were still the same.

LUDDEN: But you have each side with an interest in putting the blame on the other, and then doesn't - even geography play into that. I mean maybe the Assad regime wants the inspectors to look in one place but not necessarily in another place. Who decides if they get access, where they go?

SMITHSON: Well, I think this is going to be a relatively delicate dance that is taking place diplomatically trying to negotiate access. We know that they were asked to go to Aleppo whether or not Ban Ki-moon is successful in getting them access to Homs and Damascus as well remains to be seen. That would be ideal, but ideal may not be what happens in these circumstances. At the end of the day, I think we should all be very grateful that the secretary-general is willing to send in the team, that there are inspectors that are willing to put their lives on the line to try to find out the facts and to shed light on what's happening in Syria with regard to chemicals.

Hopefully, this will underscore that this is an act that no one wants to deliberately engage in, and it will cause further precaution on the part of the Syrian forces in safeguarding that vast arsenal that they have and not using it.

LUDDEN: You said this team is in Cyprus. How long have they've been there, and what timeframe...

SMITHSON: I think...

LUDDEN: ...how long are they prepared to wait?


SMITHSON: Well, some of them - they - it was called an advanced group, like a vanguard, went to Cyprus a couple of weeks ago. So they've - and I'm not sure that they remain there, but they had been partly deployed there. And the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons sent inspectors around the world on a regular basis just to police the destruction of known arsenals of chemical weapons, as well as to inspect commercial sites to make sure that they're not crossing any lines either.

LUDDEN: And then just in a few minutes - seconds we have left, you said this is like someone presenting to a jury. If they were to come out with a pronouncement that they had been used, that governments and - or the various juries, they have to decide what they want to believe, or what happens?

SMITHSON: And sometimes, unfortunately, even with very strong words like the ones I quoted from that report in 1988, the governments of the world won't name the perpetrator. And that's exactly what happened when the international community met in Paris in 1989. They refused to name Iraq as a user of chemical weapons. In hindsight, that looks very, very ill-advised.

LUDDEN: All right. So we will keep following events and see what comes out of Syria on this. Amy Smithson is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the author of the book "Germ Gambits: The Bioweapons Dilemma, Iraq and Beyond." She joined us here in Studio 42. Thank you so much for coming in.

SMITHSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.