Syria Risks Missing Deadline on Chemical Arms Turnover

The United Nations Security Council is growing increasingly skeptical that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will honor his commitment to eliminate his country’s arsenal of chemical weapons by June 30.

All except about 8 percent of Syria’s declared 1,300 metric tons of nerve gas and other agents have been removed from the country, but 16 containers of material remain inaccessible at a location near Damascus, Sigrid Kaag, the head of the joint mission by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, told reporters today in New York.

“The roads themselves to the site are not reachable currently,” Kaag, a former Dutch diplomat, said after briefing the Security Council. “The situation and the security conditions would not permit” her to reach out to the armed groups that control the area, and “the nature of the different groups would not also make it appropriate.”

If the last shipment isn’t made immediately, the Syrian government may fail to meet its promise to surrender its chemical arms by the end of next month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in an April 25 report to the Security Council. If Assad’s regime misses the deadline, it could be subject to punitive Security Council measures, although Russia could use its veto in the Council to veto any move to punish its longtime ally.

Missed Deadlines

It would take “less than one working week in totality” to transport the containers from the site in Syria to the U.S. ship where the chemicals will be destroyed, and that would allow “authorities to stay as close to the June 30 deadline as possible,” Kaag said.

The Assad regime agreed in September to surrender its chemicals weapons as part of a U.S.- and Russian-brokered deal after an August 21 sarin gas attack in a Damascus suburb killed more than 1,700 people.

Recent reports of hundreds of Syrians killed in attacks on April 11-16 that allegedly used chlorine gas have added to suspicions expressed by the U.S., U.K. and France, about how forthcoming the Assad regime has been about its arsenal.

While chlorine gas has many industrial uses and isn’t listed in the Chemical Weapons Convention, the global treaty on chemical arms destruction, the proven use of a lethal chemical as a weapon is a violation of international law.

Difficult Mission

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons initiated a fact-finding mission into the allegations of chlorine use on April 29. An advance team is in Damascus. It may struggle to detect 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.

The U.S. and allies France and the U.K. also have questioned the accuracy of chemical agents material declared by the Syrian regime to the mission. They have presented the chemical weapons group with their own intelligence on how incomplete and inaccurate the regime’s official stockpile declaration has been, one Security Council diplomat said, asking not to be named citing sensitivity of the matter.

Kaag said the chemical weapons organization has dispatched a “technical mission” to address possible discrepancies in the Syrian government’s reporting.

The U.S. criticized the Syrian regime’s “take-it-or-leave it” approach, saying it’s not doing all that it can to ensure the mission moves more quickly, Robert Mikulak, the U.S. representative to the OPCW, said at a meeting today of the group’s 41-member executive council in The Hague.

“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.”

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