Assad Pledges Quick Moves on Chemical Weapons Elimination
Syria will swiftly make available information about its chemical weapons and open sensitive facilities to international inspectors, while “getting rid of” those munitions within about a year, President Bashar al-Assad said in a televised interview.
Meeting the disclosure and inspection conditions under the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international accord banning such arms, is “no problem, we can do it tomorrow,” Assad said in an interview with Fox News that aired yesterday. While saying he is now committed to surrendering those weapons, he gave no ground in his assertions that rebels, not his forces, were responsible for the Aug. 21 sarin gas attack near Damascus that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people.
Assad said he has set no conditions on cooperating with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the body based in The Hague in the Netherlands that implements the treaty. Previously, he’d said that Syria’s actions depended on the U.S. and others not supplying weapons to rebel forces.
“We are committed the full requirements” of the treaty and any delay in implementation “is not about will, it’s about techniques,” he said.
Assad faces an early test because under the U.S.-Russia accord negotiated last week in Geneva by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, he must turn over a full inventory of his country’s chemical weapons arsenal by Sept. 21. That will then be subject to intrusive verification by the OPCW.
Assad said that eliminating the arsenal is a complicated process that will be done as directed by OPCW experts. He said he’s been told it may take about a year and cost as much as $1 billion to destroy the chemical weapons without creating environmental problems.
Assad didn’t explicitly address the U.S.-Russia accord, which averted American military action in return for Syria giving up its chemical arsenal. He presented Syria’s promised actions as occurring under the requirements of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria joined last week after decades during which it didn’t acknowledge having chemical arms.
“Whenever we join an agreement as Syria, we always committed to those agreements,” he said.
The Fox News interview in Damascus was arranged by Dennis Kucinich, an anti-war activist who’d met with Assad on a past visit to Syria when he was a Democratic congressman from Ohio. Kucinich, who works as a contributor to Fox News, was joined by Fox correspondent Greg Palkot in questioning Assad.
The U.S.-Russia accord, which averted the American military action against Syria, sets an objective of completing the destruction or removal of chemical weapons and related equipment by next June 30.
Earlier yesterday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf had raised the prospect that Syria might miss the first test of its compliance with the agreement.
While Kerry has said that Syria “must submit” a full disclosure of its chemical weapons by Sept. 21, Harf said that the date -- one week after the accord was reached in Geneva -- and others in the accord were more a “time line” than “a hard and fast deadline.”
What counts is seeing “forward momentum, understanding that it’s complicated and that these are targets on a calendar,” she told reporters in Washington.
Russia’s army may send chemical and biological experts to Syria to assist with the operation, Kommersant reported, citing an unidentified military official.
With the threat of military action receding, West Texas Intermediate crude fell Sept. 17 to the lowest level in almost four weeks before rebounding yesterday. WTI crude for October delivery rose 0.5 percent to $108.63 a barrel at 9:05 a.m. London time today after the Federal Reserve said it will maintain monthly bond purchases to stimulate growth.
The unedited, hour-long interview provided Assad with an extended opportunity to present his view of the civil war in his nation that has killed more than 100,000 people and uprooted about 6 million.
He described the rebels as 80 percent to 90 percent jihadists, in effect dismissing the broad public opposition that started with peaceful protests, and he said that more than 15,000 government soldiers have died in the 2 1/2 years of fighting. While saying he is open to peace talks, his view of how that might proceed differs from that of opposition leaders, who insist that he must quit as part of any deal.
While not disputing the findings of UN inspectors that the nerve agent sarin was used in an attack in the Ghouta area near Damascus, Assad said his forces were not responsible. The U.S., U.K., France and many private analysts have said the findings implicate regime forces. The UN team was barred by its mandate from placing responsibility.
“We didn’t use any chemical weapons in Ghouta,” he said, saying such use would have put at risk his troops as well as tens of thousands of civilians.
Syria yesterday gave Russia what it said was evidence supporting its case that rebels were responsible. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said during a visit to Damascus yesterday that Russia is “unhappy” about the findings of the UN investigation, according to Russian state broadcaster RT.
“We think that report was distorted, it was one-sided, the basis of information upon which it is built is not sufficient, and in any case we would need to learn and know more on what happened beyond and above that incident of Aug. 21,” Ryabkov told RT.
Lavrov on Sept. 17 called for a further inquiry, saying Russia has “serious grounds” for thinking that the attack last month was a rebel “provocation,” as Assad claims.
The conflicting U.S. and Russian views about the attack underscored the two nations’ conflicting interests as the UN Security Council attempts to negotiate a resolution mandating that Syria fulfill the Geneva agreement and give up its chemical weapons.
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