NOEL KING, HOST:
Yesterday, Syria and its main ally, Russia, gave the OK for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate the site in Douma. Now, that organization says they're going to send a team of investigators later this week. To find out more about how all this is going to work, we have former deputy head for U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq, Charles Duelfer. Good morning, sir.
CHARLES DUELFER: Good morning.
KING: All right. How difficult is the scenario that these weapons inspectors from the OPCW are walking into?
DUELFER: Well, the inspectors will be under the protection of the Syrian government, so they depend upon the good will of the Syrian government to gain access to the site, be able to conduct their investigations. However, you know, you would think that they can do that pretty quickly since the site is close to Damascus. Once on the ground, they have a lot of forensic techniques at their disposal to be able to determine if chemical weapons have been used. They can, you know, interview people. They can interview medical workers, take biological samples.
They have a fair amount of experience in examining the craters from the so-called barrel bombs and see what kind of residue they leave. It should be - they should be able, assuming they get rapid access, to determine if chlorine weapons have been used. But the key point here is this particular mechanism, they are not mandated to determine who was behind the attack. Their mandate is only to say whether chemical munitions have been used.
KING: Oh, that's very interesting. They're not there to lay blame. Well, let me ask you. Syria and Russia have said the rebels are lying about the chemical attack in order to provoke the United States into a confrontation. You've seen photos and videos of the alleged victims. What do you think? Do you think this is a chemical attack?
DUELFER: No, I think it looks pretty clear that a chlorine weapon was used. It's certainly a pattern of use of them before. Chlorine, in this case, can be useful because when there's bombing going on, people naturally go to the basements for security. Chlorine is not a sophisticated chemical for use as a weapon, but it is heavy. It sinks. It's heavier than air, so it tends to go to low points where the people are hiding. And so it drives them out. It's an insidious way of using it, but it can be effective in limited cases.
KING: What does Syria have to gain from allowing in weapons inspectors?
DUELFER: Well, at this point, since Bashar al-Assad is in a stronger position, he's, you know, he can play a tougher hand. Recall in 2013, when President Obama laid down the red line and then they used sarin at that time, the Russians, you know, they really put their thumb on Bashar al-Assad's carotid artery and said, listen, if you want to survive, you've got to allow the inspectors to come in and deal with your very substantial chemical stocks at that time. Well, that was when Bashar al-Assad was very weak. Now he's stronger. The Russians have backed him. He's got clients with respect to the Iranians in place.
So I think he feels a greater freedom of movement. I mean, as was pointed out, a year ago, the United States launched a very sizable cruise missile attack. But that has not deterred him from using these weapons. So, you know, I think he's feeling stronger because he's got strong Russian support. If we're going to solve this problem, you know, the Russians have to be in back of it. If we come into a conflict now, we're going to have a huge problem because there's a lot of Russians on the ground.
KING: Just briefly, why is it not the job of the investigators to determine who's responsible? Is that just not possible?
DUELFER: Well, the treaty under which the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (ph) was set up, that's not in their mandate. The United Nations Security Council had created a mechanism for assigning attribution, but they finished their work last year. They finished with the conclusion that, in previous cases, Bashar al-Assad had been the person behind it, as well as some of the insurgent groups. But that mechanism has been vetoed since that time by the Russians.
KING: Charles Duelfer was the deputy head of the U.N. inspections team in Iraq, and he was also a chemical weapons adviser to the CIA. Thank you, Charles.
DUELFER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.