Syria may miss the deadline set by the United Nations Security Council and an international watchdog group to surrender all its chemical weapons by the end of June, the UN official coordinating the effort said.
Violence in the area near Damascus where the last of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arsenal is stored is making it “difficult” to complete the mission, Sigrid Kaag, special coordinator of the joint effort by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said in an interview yesterday at UN headquarters in New York.
If the final 8 percent of Assad’s declared 1,300 metric tons of chemical agents can be transported out “fairly soon,” the complete destruction of his arsenal “will be around the June 30 deadline,” she said.
A UN Security Council resolution last September requires the Assad regime to surrender all its nerve gas and other weapons, as well as precursor chemicals, and ensure that they’re destroyed to avoid sanctions or the possible use of force for non-compliance. The binding resolution was adopted a month after a sarin gas attack near Damascus killed 1,700 people.
Kaag suggested that it may take more time and further investigation to determine if Assad has deliberately violated the resolution, or whether technical and logistical issues beyond his control have prevented him from meeting the deadline. It will be up to the Security Council to decide whether such a review is necessary, she said.
The 15-member Council must reach a consensus on violations of the 2013 resolution before authorizing any punitive measures. Even if a move is made to punish Syria, Russia can use its veto to protect its longtime Arab ally.
Kaag said that some discrepancies have been noted in the Syrian government’s declaration of its chemical weapons program and stockpiles, and there is “a work in progress” to examine the gaps. Some, she said, are in delivery mechanisms or volumes of chemical agents that differ from what Syria reported, or from a lack of clarity or omissions in paperwork.
Negotiations also are continuing on how and to what extent the Syrian government must destroy 12 of its chemical weapons facilities, which she said are in a network of “underground tunnels connected to other parts of a larger military complex.”
“They are part of a whole complex network of military facilities so what you destroy, and to what extent you destroy, has impact on the rest of the military installation -- which they don’t have to destroy,” Kaag said.
The U.S. and allies France and the U.K. also have questioned the accuracy of the Syrian regime’s declaration of its chemical agents. They’ve presented the chemical weapons group with intelligence on how incomplete and inaccurate the regime’s declaration has been, said one Security Council diplomat, who asked not to be named, citing the sensitivity of the matter.
Kaag said the chemical weapons organization has dispatched a “technical mission” to work with Syrian officials to examine the discrepancies.
The U.S. criticized the Syrian regime’s “take-it-or-leave it” approach, with Robert Mikulak, the U.S. representative to the OPCW, yesterday telling the group’s 41-member executive council in The Hague that the Assad government isn’t not doing all it can to ensure that the mission moves more quickly.
“The responsibility to complete the removal and to start destroying those facilities resides solely with Syria,” Mikulak said in an e-mailed statement. “The regime’s performance -- insufficient and late steps for completing removals, and refusal to negotiate on a destruction plan for its chemical weapons production facilities that meets treaty standards -- is contrary to its obligations.”
Alleged Chlorine Use
While Kaag said the council yesterday recognized the security concerns surrounding the removal of the last chemicals as legitimate, U.S., U.K. and French diplomats have expressed their distrust of the regime, which cites escalating violence in the three-year civil war to explain its inability to meet previous chemical weapons milestones.
Recent reports of hundreds of Syrians killed in attacks on between April 11 and April 16 that allegedly used chlorine gas have added to U.S., U.K. and French suspicions about how forthcoming the Assad regime has been.
Chlorine gas has many industrial uses, and isn’t listed in the Chemical Weapons Convention, the global treaty on chemical arms destruction. Even so, any proven use of a lethal chemical as a weapon is a violation of international law.
The OPCW initiated a fact-finding mission on April 29 to look into the allegations of chlorine use. While an advance team is in Damascus, it may have difficulty detecting definitive traces of such an attack because chlorine, unlike other toxic gases, evaporates quickly after use, according to a UN diplomat who asked not to be named, citing policy.
Kaag did not comment on the three countries’ suspicions or the alleged chlorine use, stressing that her job is to make sure that the prohibited chemical arms are removed from Syrian territory and neutralized as quickly as possible.
If the security situation improves, it would take “less than one working week” to transport the containers from the site to the U.S. Navy ship MV Cape Ray now in the Mediterranean Sea, where the chemicals will be destroyed, she said.
In the event that conditions around the storage area don’t improve, the UN-OPCW mission is looking at ways to fly the chemical arms out of Syria, Kaag added.