Syria turned in an initial inventory of its chemical weapons yesterday, in advance of U.S.- Russian talks in the coming week on United Nations action to compel the Arab nation to surrender its toxic arsenal.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said yesterday it had “received an initial disclosure from the Syrian government of its chemical weapons program.” A Sept. 14 U.S.-Russian agreement, which averted an American military strike on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, called for an itemization of Syria’s poison gas stocks by today.
Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, said yesterday that it was “a positive step” for Syria to submit the list within the period outlined in the agreement, which calls for the Arab country to turn over its chemical weapons to international control for eventual destruction.
The move came as the U.S., France and the U.K. push for the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution next week giving international force to the terms of the Geneva accord between the U.S. and Russia.
Efforts to agree on a UN resolution encountered headwinds from Russia, Assad’s strongest ally, which opposes any measure that alludes to a threat of force.
“There need to be consequences for noncompliance,” Rhodes told reporters on a conference call. “We would want to see the strongest enforcement possible.”
Russia is also resisting any attempt to assign blame to Assad’s regime for an Aug. 21 chemical attack that the U.S. says killed 1,400 people, including more than 400 children.
The Security Council is set to negotiate on a resolution next week, as world leaders travel to New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly.
“We believe there needs to be a sense of urgency,” Rhodes said. “We want to be moving as quickly as we can to get those weapons under international control and to destroy them.”
The timetable has started to slip. The executive council of the chemical weapons organization in The Hague, which would oversee Syria’s chemicals disarmament, said yesterday it has postponed a meeting on Syria that was scheduled for tomorrow, aiming for a new date in the middle of next week.
The OPCW will submit the initial document for review by its executive council, of which the U.S. is a member, State Department’s deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said, declining to comment further on whether Syria’s submission met requirements of the U.S.-Russian agreement.
“Clearly, we said they needed to submit a comprehensive list of their entire stockpile and programs,” Harf said. “But we’ll have more to come, I’m sure, as we go through the list.”
Russia has had close ties with Syria since Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, took power in a coup in 1970. Russia has been a major arms provider to the regime and maintains its only military base outside the former Soviet Union at Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Washington that he pressed for a “firm and strong” UN resolution in a “fairly long conversation” with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday.
Assad is likely to stop complying if the UN Security Council adopts a resolution that doesn’t threaten force against his regime, said Firas Abi Ali, a London-based Middle East analyst at research firm IHS.
“Then you’ll start seeing delaying tactics as part of the technical process,” he said by phone. “For now, while there is a credible threat of force being used against them, they are going to try and appear very reasonable.”
George Sabra, a member of the main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said he had no faith in Assad’s pledge to implement the agreement.
“Everybody knows about the credibility of the regime and how it honors its obligations,” Sabra said in a televised interview with SkyNews Arabiya. “There will be lists going and delegations coming for months, and even for years, while the regime continues committing crimes against humanity.”
With the threat of military action receding, West Texas Intermediate crude for October delivery, which expired yesterday, fell $1.72, or 1.6 percent, percent to $104.67 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the lowest settlement since Aug. 21. Prices slid 3.3 percent this week, the biggest five-day drop since June.
In an interview that aired Sept. 18 on Fox News, Assad said his regime will abide by the convention banning chemical weapons and won’t impose conditions. Syria’s government is willing to discuss with international organizations the timeline for destroying its stockpiles, Assad said, adding that some experts estimate it would take a year to eliminate all of them.
In an indication of the challenge, a U.S. stockpile of munitions armed with the same type of nerve gas used in Syria last month is still stored in concrete bunkers at an Army depot in Kentucky 30 years after the U.S. government promised to destroy it.
Once a plan is in place for Syria, UN member states will need to help carry it out because the world body and the chemical weapons organization lack the resources do so on their own.
The OPCW has only about 70 inspectors to visit an estimated 45 to 50 chemical weapons sites in Syria, and countries such as the Czech Republic, Japan and Russia with expertise in disarming chemical weapons would have to provide support, said a UN diplomat who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.