Assad regime is dragging its feet on removing chemical weapons, U.S. says


The cargo ship MV Cape Ray, owned by the U.S. Navy, is being used to help destroy Syria's chemical weapons. (Thoralf Doehring/AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama administration said Thursday that only 4 percent of Syria’s most dangerous chemical weapons had been removed from the country, and it accused President Bashar al-Assad of dragging his feet on complying with the international agreement to eliminate the arsenal.

Officials responsible for overseeing the weapons’ destruction met in The Hague to review what diplomats called major delays and obstruction by the Syrian government as the eradication project ramped up this month.

“The effort to remove chemical agents and key precursor chemicals from Syria has seriously languished and stalled,” Robert P. Mikulak, the U.S. representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, told the body.

Mikulak rejected Syria’s explanation that the delay is the result of security concerns in the areas through which chemical stores would be transported. Syria has demanded additional equipment to protect the shipments from rebel attacks.

“These demands are without merit and display a ‘bargaining mentality’ rather than a security mentality,” Mikulak said.

The White House said Assad must speed up chemical weapons shipments from inside the country to the port city of Latakia as agreed under a landmark deal to secure and destroy one of the world’s largest stores of lethal chemical agents.

“It is the Assad regime’s responsibility to transport those chemicals to facilitate removal. We expect them to meet their obligation to do so,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One.

The slow Syrian compliance in January came as the separate United Nations effort to convene peace talks between the Assad government and political opponents also hit snags. The tandem efforts are the pillars of U.S. policy toward Syria nearly three years into a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions.

The Assad government and opposition figures sat down with a U.N. mediator this week but have made no real progress. Even a deal that was largely prearranged, to get more food and other aid to besieged areas of Syria, has not emerged from the brief talks. That agreement was supposed to build confidence between negotiators who might then be able to begin to form a power-sharing government.

The talks in Geneva run through Friday and are to reconvene in February.

The chemical weapons deal averted U.S. airstrikes planned in response to the alleged gassing of civilians in a Damascus suburb last summer. The airstrikes would have been the most direct U.S. involvement in the war but would not have ended the conflict or accomplished the Obama administration’s goal of removing Assad from power.

In Warsaw, where he was meeting with leaders of the Polish government, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday that he was troubled by the lack of progress and called upon Russia and other countries to pressure Syria to do more.

“The United States is concerned that the Syrian government is behind in delivering these chemical weapons precursor materials on time and with the schedule that was agreed to,” Hagel told reporters.

Hagel said he raised the delay with Russia’s defense chief Wednesday. Russia is Syria’s most important diplomatic protector and is co-author, with the United States, of the 2013 deal to eliminate the Syrian chemical stockpile.

“We believe that this effort can continue to get back on track, even though we’re behind schedule, but the Syrian government has to take responsibility for fulfilling its commitment that has been made,” Hagel said.

Outlining the poor progress, Mikulak, the U.S. delegate in The Hague, said that Syria has shipped just 4 percent of so-called Priority One chemicals, which were supposed to be completely removed from the country by the end of 2013. About the same percentage of less-deadly Priority Two chemicals have been shipped to date.

Whitlock reported from Warsaw.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.
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