WASHINGTON/BEIRUT: The United States Thursday accused Syria of dragging its feet on the handover of chemical weapons, a delay that puts at risk what President Barack Obama touted only this week as a U.S. diplomatic achievement in Syria’s civil war.
Saying that just 4 percent of Syria’s deadliest chemical weapons materials had been removed, the Obama administration said the Syrian government’s requests for additional equipment were “without merit” and demanded action to get back on schedule to comply with an international disarmament deal.
“The United States is deeply concerned about the failure of the government of Syria to transport to [the port of] Latakia all of the chemical agent and precursors as mandated,” the United States told the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the world’s chemicals weapons watchdog in The Hague.
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s decision in September to give up chemical arms helped him avoid threatened U.S. airstrikes in retaliation for a poison gas attack near Damascus in August that killed hundreds of people, many of them women and children.
But the internationally backed operation to dispose of Syria’s chemical arsenal is now six to eight weeks behind schedule and it will miss next week’s deadline for sending all toxic agents abroad for destruction, sources familiar with the matter have told Reuters.
Obama cited the chemical weapons deal in his annual state of the Union address Tuesday, saying “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.”
Underscoring the Obama’s administration’s anxiety, U.S. Defense Secretary said he discussed the issue in a call Wednesday with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shogun, and asked him to “do what he could to influence the Syrian government to comply with the agreement that has been made” for destroying the chemical weapons.
“The United States is concerned that the Syrian government is behind in delivering these chemical weapons precursor materials on time with the schedule that was agreed to,” Hagel told reporters during a visit to Poland.
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a frequent Republican critic of Obama’s Syria policy, said: “Having the Russian disarm Assad is sort of like Mussolini disarming Hitler; I’m not so sure it’s going to work.”
Echoing Hagel’s comments, the White House said Syrian needs to intensify its efforts to transport chemical weapons to the port of Latakia, from where the material is being shipped out.
“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,” U.S. representative to the OPCW Robert Mikulak said in the statement to the OPCW’s executive council.
“These demands are without merit, and display a ‘bargaining mentality’ rather than a security mentality,” he added.
The complaints came after a U.N. investigator, in an interview published Thursday, said Syrian authorities who blamed the opposition for the August sarin gas attack have failed to present a plausible theory for how the rebels could have obtained the nerve agent.
Without categorically saying which side was to blame, chief United Nations investigator Ake Sellstrom said it was “difficult to see” how the opposition could have weaponized the toxins.
He told CBRNe World, a specialist publication on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats, that he had asked Syrian authorities several times to back up their claim that rebels fired the weapons.
“They have quite poor theories: they talk about smuggling through Turkey, labs in Iraq and I asked them, pointedly, what about your own stores, have your own stores been stripped of anything, have you dropped a bomb that has been claimed, bombs that can be recovered by the opposition? They denied that.
“To me it is strange. If they really want to blame the opposition they should have a good story as to how they got hold of the munitions, and they didn’t take the chance to deliver that story,” Sellstrom said.