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Experts Debate How Best To Remove Syria's Chemical Weapons


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Let's go deeper now into one issue Secretary of State John Kerry raised in my interview with him earlier in the program. The secretary, along with his Russian counterpart, got Syria's Bashar al-Assad to agree to hand over his vast store of chemical weapons. Now, Kerry is suggesting those stockpiles be taken out of Syria.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: We know the locations. Locations have been declared. Locations are being secured. And my hope is that much of this material will be moved as rapidly possible into one location and - hopefully on a ship - and removed from the region.

MONTAGNE: Where that ship might go is an open question, and experts are still debating what's feasible inside Syria, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is mapping out Syria's chemical weapons program, taking stock of what Syria has and deciding how best to destroy it all by the middle of next year. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has tapped Sigrid Kaag, a Dutch U.N. expert, to oversee this unprecedented mission.


BAN KI-MOON: The situation in Syria remains dangerous and unpredictable. The cooperation of all parties in Syria is required.

KELEMEN: The chemical weapons convention bars countries from moving their stockpiles. But in Syria's case, a U.N. resolution allows it, and urges member states to help. So Ralf Trapp, a former OPCW expert, says the idea of shipping out the stockpiles has been under discussion, though he says the logistics are tough.

RALF TRAPP: Just doing this under normal peacetime conditions is not an easy option. So doing it under the conditions of the Syria of today, it's a challenge.

KELEMEN: Trapp says most of Syria's chemical stockpiles are stored in bulk, and as precursors. So other countries could help to destroy that material if it can be safely transported.

TRAPP: The precursor chemicals are not as much of a problem, because they are more or less in the same category as other types of industrial chemicals. So destroying them is something many countries with the right chemical infrastructure could do.

KELEMEN: But there are only a few countries, he says, that have the facilities to destroy chemical warfare agents. The U.S., for instance, has developed a portable hydrolysis unit it could offer, according to Amy Smithson, who's with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute.

AMY SMITHSON: This is a unit that uses literally hot water and other chemicals to degrade chemical warfare agents and chemical precursors, eliminating over 99 percent of the toxicity of the chemicals.

KELEMEN: Step one, though, is just consolidating Syria's chemical warfare agents, now spread out in more than 20 sites across the country. And that's tricky, Smithson says, under any circumstances.

SMITHSON: Chemicals tend to be very corrosive, particularly the chemicals that are used to make chemical warfare agents. And if this stuff has been sitting in munitions or in bulk storage containers for a considerable amount of time, there may be considerable safety risks to move that.

KELEMEN: She says the U.S. has experience moving its stockpiles from Europe to an atoll in the Pacific in the 1980s. And Russia moved some of its chemical weapons out of Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So there are precedents, just not in the midst of a civil war.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.