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The U.S.-Russia plan to rid Syria of chemical weapons by next summer faces many hurdles and includes "unrealistic" deadlines, says former U.N. weapons inspector David Kay, who worked on efforts to detail chemical weapons in Iraq.
Kay says the plan will require an international military presence — "boots on the ground" — to make sure the weapons don't fall into the wrong hands.
The deal on Syria, which Secretary of State John Kerry announced along with his Russian counterpart on Saturday, calls for weapons inspectors to complete an initial review of Syria's chemical weapons storage sites by November; all stockpiled material and equipment is to be destroyed by June 2014.
"It's extremely optimistic," Kay tells NPR's Steve Inskeep on Monday's Morning Edition. "It's an aggressive timeline. It's aspirational, in terms of what you would like to happen."
Kay served the Bush administration as the top U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, a post from which he resigned early in 2004. In an NPR interview days later, he said of the purported stockpiles of biological or chemical weapons in Iraq, "I don't think they exist."
The schedule for eliminating Syrian President Bashar Assad's chemical weapons will be the subject of high-level talks in several places this week — starting Monday in Paris, where Kerry stood alongside diplomats from France and Britain to say they plan to give the deal the backing of the U.N. Security Council.
Discussing the agreement Saturday, Kerry said that "there can be no games, no room for avoidance or anything less than full compliance by the Assad regime."
"The big questions about this deal is, are the Syrians and the Russians serious about it, or are they going to throw roadblocks?" Kay says. He cites the many deadlines that are built into the framework of the deal, three of which come this week.
"The most unrealistic deadline is that by June of next year, you will have destroyed all of the chemical weapons and their production facilities," says Kay, who is now a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.
Explaining why that date is likely to pass without the destruction of Syria's entire chemical arsenal, Kay points to recent history, including America's own:
"We're still destroying our own stockpile, and we've missed every deadline. The same is true of the Russians."
Closer to Syria, Kay says, we should look at Libya.
"Most people forget: Gadhafi, nine years ago — while he was still in power — said, 'I'll give up my chemical weapons.' We're still destroying them. And in fact, we're still finding some that he refused to give up," Kay says. "The rebels, after his departure, said they discovered new chemical weapons. So, it's hard to safely get rid of chemical weapons."
The U.N. team that inspected the site of a chemical weapons attack last month, which the United States says killed more than 1,000 people, has submitted its report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He is expected to brief the Security Council on the findings Monday.
The process of ridding Syria of its chemical arsenal will involve three major steps, Kay says. First, inspectors will check and verify the listed inventory. Then they will talk to Syrians who were part of the manufacturing process. And then comes a big challenge: securing the storage sites.
"Securing is probably the most difficult thing to do — other than getting to the sites in the midst of a civil war," Kay says. "Securing means 24/7 presence of someone to be sure that people aren't breaking in."
And he notes that in this case the sites must be secured not only against Syrian groups, but also against any people affiliated with al-Qaida, which has for years sought to acquire chemical weapons.
That doesn't mean Syria's army should be pulled from the sites — in fact, Kay says, the opposite is true.
"No inspector would insist that the Syrians themselves remove their military forces from where these are stored. What you want to do is put an international presence there, along with the Syrian troops."
Explaining that idea, he says, "Inspectors are never armed."
The coalition of nations that are backing the plan — the U.S. and Russia, along with France, must determine how to provide that security, Kay says.
"It can't be just technical; it's going to require someone with boots on the ground to monitor it," he says.
On Monday, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria presented its most recent report on the country's civil war to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The panel is investigating 14 alleged cases of chemical attacks in Syria, the commission's chairman, Paulo Pinheiro of Brazil, told journalists Monday.
During the session, Pinheiro also described the scope of the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
"Over 6 million people were refugees or internally displaced persons" in Syria, Pinheiro said, according to a summary on the group's site. "More than 2 million had crossed the borders, seeking safety in neighboring countries. Millions more had left their homes, braving shelling and the dangers of the ever-present checkpoints, to seek shelter inside Syria."
He also stated that the "vast majority of the conflict's casualties resulted from unlawful attacks using conventional weapons such as guns and mortars."