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A Milestone Marked In Disposal Of Syria's Chemical Weapons


President Obama had some rare good news about Syria this week. He announced yesterday that the U.S. had destroyed the most dangerous part of that country's chemical weapons arsenal. The achievement marks a major milestone in the effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons. But as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, many questions remain.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Yesterday was a good day for the diplomats and scientists at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

MIKE LUHAN: Me and a few hundred other people I know here are pretty relieved that we've gotten out of the woods for the most part with Syria because it's been a long year.

BRUMFIEL: Mike Luhan is spokesperson for the OPCW. The long year began last August with reports of a chemical attack on a Damascus suburb. Under enormous pressure after the attack, the Syrian government promised to give up its chemical weapons. That led to an all-out push to get 1,300 metric tons of chemicals out of Syria and destroyed.

LUHAN: There's never been such a broad-based international effort to disarm a country of any kind of weapon of mass destruction.

BRUMFIEL: The Syrian government itself had to get the chemicals to a port for loading onto coalition ships. Security problems caused months of delays. And even after the chemicals were out, they still had to be destroyed. The most dangerous stuff nobody wanted. So the U.S. agreed to do it at sea on a ship in the Mediterranean. That led to fears in Europe that some of the chemicals might leak, but yesterday the U.S. and OPCW said the job was done.

LUHAN: Not a drop of those chemicals was leaked into the sea or otherwise impacted in any way on the environment.

BRUMFIEL: There are still some chemicals that need disposing of, but most of the work, which could have easily taken years, has been carried out in a matter of months.

AMY SMITHSON: It's a pretty significant achievement but, dot, dot, dot...

BRUMFIEL: Amy Smithson is with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. She says that while all of Syria's declared stocks of chemicals are gone, the government may be holding on to undeclared chemicals.

SMITHSON: The United States, the United Kingdom, impartial observers like me, believe that Syria didn't tell the truth with regard to its true chemical weapons capability.

BRUMFIEL: There have been reports of chlorine gas attacks this year, which are now under investigation. And there are still big questions about that attack last August. So far, the international community hasn't formerly accused anyone, Smithson says. She says the perpetrators must be held accountable. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.