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Monday, December 30, 2013
Syria Has Yet to Move Arms. Deadline Nears
An image taken by local activists in Damascus shows the remains of a rocket implicated in a chemical attack in August. By NICK CUMMING-BRUCE
GENEVA — Two days before a deadline for getting its most deadly chemical weapons out of the country, and despite an international effort to mobilize the resources needed to do so, Syria has apparently not even begun to move them, observers familiar with the mission said Sunday.
Their assessment came as the United Nations and the international chemical weapons monitoring group overseeing the program acknowledged that Tuesday’s deadline would most likely be missed.
“At this stage, transportation of the most critical chemical material before 31 December is unlikely,” the United Nations and the chemical weapons group said in a joint statement issued in the Syrian port city of Latakia on Saturday. They said that volatile security conditions in Syria had “constrained planned movements” and that logistical problems and bad weather had contributed to the delay.
Once movement of the chemicals gets underway, the mission can be conducted quite quickly, according to those familiar with the mission, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Their comments echoed remarks made Friday by a Russian diplomat, Mikhail Ulyanov, after an international meeting on the chemical arms removal effort. Mr. Ulyanov, the head of the Russian foreign ministry’s disarmament department, said, “The removal has not yet begun,” according to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad has until mid-2014 to destroy its chemical weapons program under a deal struck by Russia and the United States in September. To meet that challenging timetable, it agreed with the watchdog group, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, to remove more than 500 metric tons of its most toxic chemicals by the end of this year and the remaining 700 tons of chemicals in its stockpile by early February.
The organization warned of possible delays when it approved the plan, and the statement issued on Saturday noted the “important progress” Syria has made in dismantling its chemical weapons program in the past three months. Three weeks ago, the head of the group, Ahmet Uzumcu, acknowledged that meeting the deadline would be “quite difficult.”
American officials have acknowledged the particular challenges of moving dangerous chemical weapons across a landscape torn by civil war, and took the news of the delay in stride. “This was always going to be complex,” a senior administration official said in Washington on Sunday, referring to the deadlines as “milestones” instead. “We’re going to work with international partners to keep this on track and to keep up the pressure on the Assad regime to meet its commitments.”
The plan the group agreed to this month called for Syria to transport the critical chemicals, including 20 tons of sulfur mustard and precursors for making sarin and VX nerve gas, from 12 storage sites around the country to Latakia. Danish and Norwegian ships are to then take them under naval escort to an Italian port for transfer to an American vessel fitted with special equipment for destroying them at sea.
Syria now has “virtually all” of the logistical and security assets it needs to undertake the movement of its chemical weapons, Mr. Uzumcu said in a statement released after a meeting on Friday in Moscow attended by all countries providing maritime support for the operation. Russia, which has shipped armored vehicles to Syria to transport the chemicals, is due to provide security at the Latakia port and, with China, Denmark and Norway, has offered to provide naval escorts for part of the voyage.
But transporting the chemicals by road to Latakia poses a particular challenge. Syrian government forces, which reportedly control the road from Damascus to the port, may still face the danger of rebel attacks.