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Syria's Chemical Weapons Include Sarin, Mustard Gas

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The intelligence that we have causes serious concerns - that warning yesterday from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Those concerns are that Syria's government not only has a stockpile of chemical weapons but that it might use them against rebels moving in on the capital, Damascus. The past few days have brought a flurry of reports from multiple news outlets that the Syrian regime is indeed preparing chemical weapons, and we wanted to know what those might include so we reached out to former U.N. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer.

CHARLES DUELFER: Well, they have both sarin, which is a nerve agent, and mustard, which is a blister agent, both of which are highly lethal. There are reports that they have a more sophisticated nerve agent called VX, and more sophisticated in this sense means that it will last longer, and a smaller dosage of it can kill you.

BLOCK: And how small would that be?

DUELFER: It's smaller than a pinhead droplets.

BLOCK: How exactly do these chemical agents work? What's their effect on the body?

DUELFER: Well, in the case of the blister agents, like mustard, they basically will blister your lungs. A nerve agent has similar effects in the sense that if it's inhaled, it will destroy your lungs but it attacks the nervous system in particular. The nerve agents are, I think, more lethal than mustard agent. But in both cases, it's a highly-debilitating weapon. Military applications, you know, are, in fact, kind of limited. Looking at the Syria circumstances, it appears, I mean, they're only logical if that were to apply is - as a terror weapon to cause terror among a civilian population. If you disperse these weapons, it's not going to be very efficient against the small number of snipers or insurgents that are, you know, occupying a certain block of a town.

BLOCK: Mr. Duelfer, we're seeing these reports that Syria may be mixing sarin and weaponizing these chemical agents. Can you explain what that would mean?

DUELFER: Chemical agents generally don't have a long shelf life once they are prepared and ready to use. So what happens is they are mixed up in parts. If it is the case that the Syrians are mixing the subcomponents of these agents together, then that's a very serious step. Because once they have mixed them together, they're in a circumstance where it's kind of a use it or lose it. That's why that indicator is quite troubling.

BLOCK: Troubling because it would indicate that the expected use would be in the very short term?

DUELFER: Yes. I mean, he still has to make a decision to use it and he could decide not to use it. But it certainly is sending a signal or a thinking on this has been that he would be deterred from using his weapons of mass destruction because, you know, logically there's not much he has to gain from it. He has a lot to lose. If he is beginning to behave in ways where, you know, at least - or former logic doesn't apply, it makes one question whether deterrence can work.

BLOCK: I want to think about the example of Iraq for just a second here. You were sent by President Bush into Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 to look into Saddam Hussein's weapons programs, the supposed WMD's that have been given as the main reason for the war. And you came out, and your conclusion was we were almost all wrong. So I wonder how confident you are now in U.S. assessments of the stockpile in Syria.

DUELFER: There is much more confidence about the Syrian case than there was about the Iraqi case. First of all, Bashar al-Assad has not denied that he has chemical weapons. He has not, you know, agreed to the chemical weapons treaty. They're one of the few countries which is not. So they've made pretty clear that they have these weapons. They've been testing the deployment mechanisms in ways so they're quite visible. So they've not been trying to conceal their capabilities.

BLOCK: Testing them in ways that are visible. Explain what you mean there.

DUELFER: Chemical munitions are put on artillery rockets or aerial bombs or ballistic missiles. But what makes them different as compared with regular explosives is you want the weapon to detonate above the ground. And then when they test, they put a grid on the ground so that they can see how the agent disperses. These types of tests are readily observable from, you know, the outside world. These things are not hidden. They're quite visible.

BLOCK: Charles Duelfer, thank you very much.

DUELFER: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's former U.N. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer.

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