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Syrian chemical disarmament needs 'ceasefire to implement'

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Syrian chemical disarmament needs 'ceasefire to implement'

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The deadly chemical weapon attack on civilians in Syria three weeks ago tore the civil war across a red line that US President Barack Obama had warned must never be crossed. As outside inspectors documented the act which Damascus said it had not carried out, an eleventh hour development forestalled a threatened punitive military move by Washington. As an alternative to the US delivering an armed strike, on Wednesday, Russia submitted a package of proposals to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, to dismantle them even as the bloodshed continues.

A version of the Russian plan that leaked to the newspaper Kommersant described four stages: Syria would join the OPCW (the world body that enforces a chemical weapons ban), declare production and storage sites, invite inspectors, and then decide with the inspectors how and by whom stockpiles would be destroyed.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons estimates that the Assad regime’s chemical arsenal amounts to 1,000 tonnes. Even if Damascus follows the steps the Russians laid out, destroying this stuff is very challenging.

That proved true against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, when stocks of binary component materials were moved from place to place in a toxic game of cat and mouse. The inspectors could do nothing without the target country’s cooperation. Syria this week appeared to acknowledge that it has chemical weapons, but has blamed the August 21 attack on the rebels.

Syria agreed to Moscow’s proposal that it give up its chemical stocks, averting what would have been the first direct Western intervention in a war that has killed more than 100,000 people.

Euronews interviewed Dieter Rothbacher, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq who trained members of the team which has just returned from Syria.

Paul McDowell, euronews:
“What is your reaction to a quotation from one US official who said Russia’s plan to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal is “doable but difficult?”

Dieter Rothbacher:
“That’s definitely true. When you look at it you have to break this story into various phases meaning at first of course the Syrians would have to put their stockpile, the information about it on the table, meaning they would have to declare what they have and based upon that information the UN (and the) international community could then put a team together and at first start with site visits.”

euronews:
“How can you uncover the weapons – especially when the government-backed forces have a deep knowledge of the country, of the terrain – and so the potential to hide weapons is there?”

Dieter Rothbacher:
“Well the thing is of course there is a potential if they want to hide certain things at the beginning. I mean, we had something similar in Iraq 20 years ago, where they have been doing that, they have been obstructive for a number of years but in the end the truth came out and hundreds of tonnes of chemical weapons were at the end, in a time frame of two years, destroyed under UN supervision. So that is a success story in itself.”

euronews:
“How can anyone’s security be guaranteed, how can you work, a team work, effectively in a region which we all know is torn apart by this civil conflict?”

Dieter Rothbacher:
“At first, when you conduct site visits you don’t need a lot of equipment. When you conduct an inventory you need a bit more equipment, specific technical equipment also for instance non-destructive evaluation techniques, meaning you can look inside containers and munitions without even opening them. But then when you move into the destruction phase it gets really technical; you need destruction facilities which still need to be built.”

euronews:
“So just give us a sense of what a team will actually do when it finds these chemical weapons. What I mean is how do you begin to disarm them?”

Dieter Rothbacher:
“The inventory is the first start of the disarmament process, so you know what you actually have to destroy and what are the quantities that we are looking at. Also, when you do the inventory you realise whether you can transport those munitions and the containers to the location of the destruction facility or facilities. If you cannot transport them, you may be forced to destroy them ‘in situ’, like it was done in Iraq 20 years ago.”

euronews:
“And of course what danger is there behind that. You talk about burning the chemicals which I assume creates a danger for the area around where they are?”

Dieter Rothbacher:
“There are certain requirements, also environmental requirements, that need to be fulfilled. You have some test runs to see if it actually works, and only then would you start the destruction campaign.”

euronews:
“From your experience, if Russia’s plan is accepted and implemented, could this result in the road to the end of the conflict in Syria?”

Dieter Rothbacher:
“You need to have some sort of ceasefire, especially to move into the technical aspect of this plan and the destruction phase. That’s absolutely necessary, and I am sure personally that when the big players agree to a plan we will have some sort of ceasefire on the ground, otherwise this plan, you cannot implement it.”

euronews:
“Is there a suggestion there that the plan could start – you could actually go into action with a team to disarm the weapons but in fact if the ceasefire breaks down it could all stop?”

Dieter Rothbacher:
“The thing is before we reach the phase, before we reach the stage of destruction, we are looking at weeks and months. As I said before, the Syrian regime needs to put the data on the stockpile on the table and stockpile also includes the production facilities in the country.”

Euronews was talking to former UN weapons inspector and trainer Dieter Rothbacher.