Middle East

Chemical watchdog urges temporary Syria truces

Opposition fighters hold a position behind tyres burning in the Salaheddin district of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on October 9, 2013. (AFP PHOTO TAREK ABU Al-FAHEM)

THE HAGUE/BEIRUT: The world’s chemical weapons watchdog called Wednesday for temporary truces to meet tight disarmament deadlines in Syria, as Iran said it refused any conditions for attending Geneva II talks.

“I think if some temporary cease-fires can be established, I think those targets could be reached,” Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons chief Ahmet Uzumcu told journalists in The Hague.

The OPCW has been charged with dismantling Syria’s chemical arsenal and facilities by mid-2014 under the terms of a U.N. Security Council resolution drawn up after deadly nerve gas attacks in August.

Uzumcu said during a rare public briefing on the state of Syria’s disarmament that the timeline “is extremely tight,” with 20 sites to be visited in the coming weeks.

He denied that the deadlines, including the destruction of all production facilities by Nov. 1, were unrealistic.

“Much depends on the situation on the ground, that’s why we have urged all parties in Syria to be cooperative,” Uzumcu said. “The elimination is in the interest of all.”

The OPCW said Tuesday it was sending a second wave of inspectors to bolster the disarmament mission in the war-ravaged nation.Uzumcu said that another 12 experts were being sent to Damascus.

Syria has won rare international praise for its cooperation with the chemical disarmament mission, deployed in Damascus since Oct. 1.

Inspectors have already visited one chemical site in Syria and were to visit another near Damascus Wednesday.

A team of around 30 OPCW arms experts and U.N. logistics and security personnel are on the ground and have started to destroy weapons production facilities, with footage of their work broadcast on Syrian television.

Syria has already made a declaration of its weapons facilities, and the U.N. resolution set a Nov. 1 deadline for the eradication of production and chemical-mixing facilities.

OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said that despite the risky nature of the disarmament program, there were “no shortage of sign-ups” among the organization’s inspectors to take part in what is a voluntary mission.

At the same news conference, Uzumcu’s political adviser Malik Ellahi said “at the moment there are certain sites that are located in areas which are dangerous.”

He added: “So far what we have been told is that most of the sites and facilities that we need to inspect are in government control.”

Snipers shot at U.N. inspectors in August as they traveled to the scene of a suspected gas attack at Ghouta east of Damascus in which hundreds were killed.

Previous attempts by international mediators to negotiate broader cease-fires have failed, though it might be easier for combatants to agree to halt their fire in a specific location for a limited time.

Two large umbrella groups for the Arab and Muslim world – the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – are urging those fighting in Syria to halt fighting for the duration of next week’s four-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, the Arab League’s deputy secretary-general, Ahmad Ben Heli, told reporters in Cairo Wednesday.

Elsewhere, Iran said it rejected any conditions for taking part in a long-delayed peace conference on Syria, Iranian media reported, in effect dismissing a U.S. suggestion that Tehran back a call for a transitional government in Damascus.

The U.S. State Department said Monday that Washington would be more open to Iran taking part in a Geneva II conference seeking an end to the war if Iran publicly supported a 2012 statement calling for a transitional authority to rule Syria.

But Iran rejected any conditions being placed on it to participate in diplomatic efforts on Syria, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said Tuesday evening.

“If our participation is in the interest of achieving a solution, it will be unacceptable to set conditions for inviting the Islamic Republic of Iran, and we accept no conditions,” Afkham said, according to the state-run Press TV.

A June 2012 “Geneva Communique” sought to chart a path to a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, and was agreed to by major powers such as the United States and Russia, Gulf states, and Syria’s neighbors Iraq and Turkey – but not Iran, which was not invited to those talks.

The agreement called for a transitional governing authority but left open the question of whether Assad must leave power.

The agreement said such a transitional government must be chosen by the Damascus government and the opposition by mutual consent, which the United States says in effect rules out Assad staying in power.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 10, 2013, on page 1.




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