Syria misses deadline to hand over chemical weapons

Libya’s announcement Wednesday that it has completed a drawn-out, 10-year chemical destruction operation looms as lesson

U.N. chemical weapons investigators confirmed the deployment of deadly sarin gas in an attack on the Damascus suburbs in August, but did not assign blame for the attack to either regime or rebel forces.
Mohamed Abdullah/AFP/Getty

Syria on Wednesday missed a deadline to hand over all of its declared toxic materials to the world's chemical-weapons watchdog, putting a program to destroy the war-torn country’s stockpile several weeks behind schedule and jeopardizing its final June 30 deadline.

On the same day, Libya confirmed it had at long last destroyed the entirety of its chemical-weapons stores, 10 years after former dictator Muammar Gaddafi signed the U.N. chemical-weapons convention, a grim reminder that such cleanups nearly always take longer than expected.

Under a deal reached in October between Russia and the United States, which helped avert a U.S.-led missile strike against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Syria had agreed to give up its entire stockpile of chemical weapons by Feb. 5.

But due to extended delays, which chemical-weapons cleanup experts predicted, Syria has relinquished control only of slightly more than 4 percent of weapons it reported to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). 

There have been no additional shipments since Jan. 27 and the government has failed to provide a revised schedule, said OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan.

"It's a status quo until we get this plan,” he told Reuters.

Damascus has blamed the delay on security problems and the threat of attacks by rebels on road transports to the northern port of Latakia, and has requested additional armor and communications equipment.

As the operation inches along, the Assad regime continues to frame itself as a partner in peace to the foreign powers wrangling for a resolution to Syria’s nearly three-year civil war, which has killed upwards of 130,000 people. By agreeing to dispose of its chemical weapons, the regime has also staved off the threatened U.S.-led strike, which was prompted by a sarin gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus in August that killed hundreds of civilians. The U.S. and its allies blamed the regime for the attack.

In a statement last week, U.S. representative to the OPCW Robert Mikulak suggested the Assad regime was dragging its feet intentionally and exploiting the chemical cleanup as a bargaining chip.

"Syria has said that its delay in transporting these chemicals has been caused by "security concerns" and insisted on additional equipment —armored jackets for shipping containers, electronic countermeasures and detectors for improvised explosive devices," Mikulak wrote. "These demands are without merit and display a 'bargaining mentality' rather than a security mentality."

While Russia said on Tuesday that its ally Syria would transport more chemicals soon, Western diplomats said they saw no indications that further shipments were pending.

The Libya lesson

Similar delays had plagued the cleanup process in Libya, where a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 brought the dismantling operation to a halt. But a renewed push by Western countries to expedite the process after Gaddafi fell, out of fear that the weapons would fall into the hands of hard-line militias that have taken over parts of the country, ultimately prevailed.

“Libya has become totally free of usable chemical weapons that might present a potential threat to the security of local communities, the environment and neighboring areas," said Mohamed Abdelaziz, the foreign minister.

"This achievement would not have been possible in such a short time without concerted efforts within an international partnership or without the logistical support and the technical assistance from Canada, Germany and the USA.”

In total, Gaddafi’s government had declared around 25 tons of mustard gas and 1,400 tons of precursor chemicals used to make poison gas munitions, similar to the amount declared by Assad.

As in Libya, Syria’s highly toxic gases present the immediate danger and remain a higher priority for destruction over the bulkier precursor chemicals. But under the U.N. agreement, they will all be shipped out gradually and destroyed off-site.

Widespread violence and the international community’s inability to broker a cease-fire to protect the chemical destruction team dispatched to Syria led the U.N. to settle on that more arduous and time-consuming option.

Delays have spurred calls for a revised approach, however, with many citing the example of Libya, where weapons were destroyed within the country, rather than being shipped out.

“The plan is falling to pieces in Syria and isn’t going anywhere, so we should look to Libya, where contractors destroyed 27 tons of mustard gas” within the country, said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the COO of biotechnology development firm SecureBio and a former commander of British CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) forces who has led chemical cleanup in Afghanistan.

“By just needing a few people to do that, it’s got a much better chance of success then mobilizing the Syrian army to move them across the borders,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s an unorthodox approach, but drastic times call for drastic measures.”

Michael Pizzi contributed to this report, with Al Jazeera and wire services.

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