The Obama administration Monday called on Syria to honor promises to surrender its chemical weapons stockpile, a day after international experts acknowledged delays in removing some of the most lethal toxins from the country.
U.S. officials conceded that a Tuesday deadline for ridding Syria of hundreds of tons of liquid poisonswould not be met, citing stalled progress in transporting the chemicals across war-ravaged countryside to ships that will carry them out of the region. But the officials insisted that the overall effort to destroy President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arsenal was on track.
“We continue to make progress, which has been the important part,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters. “It was always an ambitious timeline, but we are still operating on the June 30th timeline for the complete destruction.”
The group overseeing the elimination of Syria’s stockpile, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, blamed bad weather and security problems for delays in removing liquid chemicals from a dozen storage depots scattered across the country.
Russia has provided Syria with trucks to carry the toxins to Danish and Norwegian ships waiting in the port of Latakia, but as recently as Sunday, Syrian officials had made no effort to load the trucks, according to U.S. officials familiar with the operation.
A senior State Department official said the weather and security concerns were legitimate, but expressed dismay at the slow progress on the ground. The official, who insisted on anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities, said there were indications that some “packaging” work had begun Monday.
“This is not a process where you wait for a sunny day and then get it all done. You need to get moving,” the official said. He said U.S. officials were “not ready to ascribe a political motive” to the delays, acknowledging that Syria faced security challenges in moving the chemicals across rebel-contested territory.
“On the other hand, they have moved these materials a number of times before, and we think they could get moving on this again,” he said.
Harf noted that the Assad regime accepted responsibility for safely transporting the chemicals after agreeing in September to voluntarily surrender its estimated 1,000 metric tons of mustard gas and highly lethal nerve agents. The agreement followed a U.S. threat to launch air strikes to punish Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians.
“We expect them to meet that obligation. That’s the next step in this process,” Harf said.
Under a plan approved by the OPCW, about 500 metric tons of liquid chemicals are to be shipped out of Syrian waters and transferred to a specially modified U.S. ship, the MV Cape Ray, which has been outfitted with equipment to chemically neutralize the toxins in a procedure that will take place at sea. Pentagon officials say the process poses no significant risk to humans or the environment.
Harf pointed to substantial progress made so far in reducing the threat posed by Syria’s chemical arsenal. OPCW experts earlier this year oversaw the destruction of the machines used by Syria to mix liquid precursors into sarin, a highly lethal nerve agent. Inspectors also confirmed the destruction of hundreds of empty artillery shells and rocket warheads designed for chemical warfare.