Syria chemical weapons mission faces funding woes

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons needs tens of millions more dollars to complete its mission

Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu briefs journalists on the progress in the disarmament of Syria's chemical arsenal, on Oct. 9 in The Hague.
Martijn Beekman/AFP/Getty Images

The international body tasked with eliminating Syria's chemical weapons has raised only enough money to fund its mission through the end of November, and more cash will have to be found soon to pay for the destruction of poison gas stocks next year.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize last month, is overseeing the destruction of Syria's nerve agent stocks under a U.S.-Russian agreement reached in September.

It has so far raised about $13.5 million for the task.

"It is the assessment of the secretariat that its existing personnel resources are sufficient for operations to be conducted in October and November 2013," said an Oct. 25 OPCW document seen by Reuters. At the time, its account held just $5.5 million.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says the total cost of eliminating the weapons could be $1 billion. But experts say it is likely to be lower, running into the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on where and how the chemical arms are destroyed.

The United States has been the biggest contributor so far to the OPCW's fund for the Syria mission, with Britain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland also contributing.

Washington has contributed $6 million in equipment, training and cash, split between funds with the OPCW and the United Nations, the OPCW document said.

Under the joint Russian-U.S. proposal, Syria agreed in September to destroy its entire chemical weapons program by mid-2014. The move averted missile strikes threatened by Washington following an Aug. 21 sarin gas attack in the outskirts of Damascus that killed hundreds of people.

Rising costs

Until September, Syria was one of a handful of countries that were not party to a global treaty outlawing the stockpiling of chemical arms.

Damascus's adherence to the Chemical Weapons Convention creates the unique problem of safely destroying huge stockpiles of poisons in the middle of a civil war that has left more than 100,000 people dead and driven as many as one-third of Syria's residents from their homes. Some 9 million Syrians are in need of aid, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos has said.

Personnel costs will be largely covered by the OPCW's regular budget, less than an annual $100 million, but the Hague-based organization will need substantial additional resources.

By the end of next week, the OPCW and Syria must agree to a detailed plan of destruction, explaining how and where to destroy the poisons, which include mustard gas, sarin and possibly VX.

Last week the OPCW said its teams had inspected 21 out of 23 chemical weapons sites across the country, meeting a key Nov. 1 deadline. Two other sites were too dangerous to reach for inspection, but critical equipment already had been moved to other sites that experts had visited, the OPCW said.

Syria declared 30 production, filling and storage facilities, eight mobile filling units and three chemical weapons-related facilities to the OPCW.

Four other countries have pledged to contribute an additional $3.6 million to the OPCW fund, an OPCW document said. Germany, Italy and the Netherlands supplied air transport to fly OPCW team members to Syria, while other European countries and the United States provided armored vehicles that were shipped by Canada, the document said.

The United Kingdom has pledged to give $3 million, while Russia, France and China said they will donate experts and technical staff to witness the entire time-consuming destruction process.

A major cost still to come will be the likely shipping of raw chemicals out of Syria for safe destruction away from the war zone. Discussions are ongoing with countries willing to host the facilities to incinerate or chemically neutralize the poisons, including Albania, Belgium and an unspecified Scandinavian country, two sources said.

Companies in the United States, Germany and France are competing for the contract to provide destruction facilities, sources said.

Since being established under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, the OPCW has overseen the destruction of more than 50,000 tons of toxic munitions, or more than 80 percent of the world's declared stockpile.

The United States and Russia, the largest possessors of chemical weapons, are years behind schedule in destroying their arsenals.

Syria peace talks delayed

Meanwhile, the UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to Syria said Tuesday that peace talks between the Syrian government and rebel groups will not go ahead as planned in November.

Brahimi said that diplomats were "still striving to see if we can have the conference before the end of the year."

The announcement came after he met senior diplomats in the Swiss city of Geneva in a new push to prepare the already long-delayed peace conference. Assad's government signaled it was not ready to negotiate handing over power.

Russia on Tuesday insisted that Iran must be invited to the peace negotiations. Brahimi said the discussions on that issue had not been completed.

"All those who affect the situation must be invited to the conference," Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said. "This includes all of Syria's neighbors, this includes almost all countries of the Persian Gulf including, of course, not only the Arab countries but also Iran. This includes the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and other countries such as Turkey."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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