The Washington Post

Syria blamed for missed deadline on chemical arsenal

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 poisons would 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.

Joby Warrick joined the Post’s national staff in 1996. He has covered national security, intelligence and the Middle East, and currently writes about the environment.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments

Sign up for email updates from the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

You have signed up for the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

Thank you for signing up
You'll receive e-mail when new stories are published in this series.
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Making family dinnertime happen
Deaf banjo player teaches thousands
New limbs for Pakistani soldiers
Play Videos
A veteran finds healing on a dog sled
Learn to make this twice-baked cookie
How to prevent 'e-barrassment'
Play Videos
Syrian refugee: 'I’m committed to the power of music'
The art of tortilla-making
Michael Bolton's cinematic serenade to Detroit
Play Videos
Circus nuns: These sisters are no act
5 ways to raise girls to be leaders
Cool off with sno-balls, a New Orleans treat

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.