THE HAGUE: Syria is expected to hand over a detailed plan for the destruction of its chemical arsenal Thursday, days ahead of deadline, the OPCW said Wednesday. The detailed plan is the next step for Damascus under the terms of a U.S.-Russian deal to head off military strikes on Syria agreed last month which calls for all its chemicals to be destroyed by mid-2014.
“We expect Syria’s initial declaration of its chemical weapons program within the next 24 hours,” spokesman Michael Luhan told reporters Wednesday in The Hague, where the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is based.
President Bashar Assad’s regime has already handed over an inventory of its chemicals, weapons and facilities, and international inspectors are already busy inspecting and destroying them.
Syria has until Sunday to submit its “initial” plan of how to destroy its weapons, in accordance with Article III of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
A joint OPCW-United Nations mission has now checked 18 of 23 declared sites in Syria, destroying production equipment at almost all of them, Luhan said.
Damascus is required to submit its declaration in accordance with deadlines set by the OPCW’s Executive Council and enforced by a U.N. Security Council resolution.
The OPCW’s Executive Council will use the Syrian declaration to decide by Nov. 15 on “destruction milestones” for Syria’s arsenal.
NATO and Russian officials, meanwhile, said Wednesday they could play a role in eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles if they were asked to do so by the U.N., following a meeting of NATO and Russian defense ministers in Brussels.
That raised the possibility that Russia and NATO, which usually regard each other with suspicion, could end up cooperating on the issue.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he expected the allies and Russia to respond positively if the U.N. asked them to help.
“Whether that would be executed on an individual national basis or collectively, it’s really premature to make any assessment on that at this stage,” he told reporters.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also foresaw a possible role for NATO.
“It may well be that NATO will be asked for some assistance,” he told a news conference after the meeting.
“ Russia and NATO have many areas of common interest, including the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles,” he said.
But Hagel stressed that there were “no plans to have any U.S. forces in any way in Syria.”
NATO has so far shunned any involvement in the Syrian conflict apart from sending Patriot missiles to protect neighboring Turkey.
Russia and the United States are the only countries with industrial scale capacity to destroy mustard, VX, sarin or cyanide-armed munitions, but the import of chemical weapons is banned under U.S. law.
Norway also said it was considering a U.S. request to help destroy Syria’s chemical arms but lacked expertise, equipment and storage sites for the final waste.
Washington asked Norway’s former Labor-led government last month to help destroy some of Syria’s chemical arsenal in a deal brokered with Moscow after an Aug. 21 attack in the suburbs of Damascus killed 1,400 people.
“We are taking very seriously this request from the United States to possibly destroy these chemicals,” new Foreign Minister Boerge Brende said, but added that there were many hurdles.
Even after destruction, Norwegian law bans storage of such organic waste, meaning other countries would first have to guarantee to import and store the destroyed chemicals after they were treated in Norway, he said.
With the first stage of the OPCW’s work in Syria nearing completion, Luhan said that some inspectors would be leaving Damascus next week, temporarily reducing the watchdog’s staff there from 28 to 15.
The combined OPCW-U.N. team in Syria is currently around 60-strong.
“We’re reaching the end of this first stage, during which we needed to verify the chemical warfare program by visiting all the disclosed sites,” Luhan said.
The U.N. Security Council last month passed a resolution backed by the OPCW agreement to destroy Syria’s arsenal after hundreds of people were killed in sarin gas attacks on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21.