Just months after forestalling a United States military strike, the international community on Tuesday began moving Syria’s deadly chemical weapons arsenal out of the country, a rare bright spot in the story of the country’s three-year unraveling.
The first shipments left Syria, the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed on Tuesday, saying that a “first quantity of priority chemical materials was moved from two sites to the port of Lattakia for verification and was then loaded onto a Danish commercial vessel.” From there, the ship entered interantional waters, where it awaits another shipment of chemicals. While at sea, a veritable international fleet is providing security for the ship, including the Chinese frigate Yan Cheng, the Russian missile cruiser Peter the Great, Norwegian frigate Helge Ingstad, and the Danish Esbern Snare.
Sigrid Kaag, head of the Joint Mission, briefed the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday about the ambitious efforts to remove Syria’s stockpile, noting afterwards that the setbacks seen are relatively minor. “When you look at all these factors combined, this is actually a remarkable achievement that almost everything is now in country, it’s been prepositioned, and it’s already being used and the first movements could actually take place,” Kaag told reporters. Kaag also indicated that the Council is expecting the full transfer of chemical weapons and their components to take place by the end of June as currently scheduled.
A large part of the delays seen results from the ongoing fighting between the Syrian government and various rebel groups, hindering the ability to move the deadly cargo freely. The OPCW on Wednesday called for Syria to increase the security provided to the international staffers working to transfer the chemicals out of the country. Syria in turn is claiming, according to reports, that rebels have twice launched unsuccessful attacks on the depots where the chemical agents are being stored. A Western diplomat confirmed to the Associated Press that Syria’s OPCW representative made this claim, but the actual attacks have not been verified.
The OPCW request echoes U.S. calls for greater efforts from the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to provide the protection required. “We, of course, welcome the announcement by the OPCW that an initial amount of priority chemical materials were removed from Syria today,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said on Tuesday. “This represents continued progress toward the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons program. Much more needs to be done. As the international community has made clear, it is the Assad regime’s responsibility to transport the chemicals to Latakia safely to facilitate their removal.”
U.S. officials have been quoted in the past as being worried that Syria may not have fully declared all of its stockpile to the OPCW. Kaag, in an interview with CNN’s Christine Amanpour, dismissed those fears, pointing out that if member-states feel there is likely a gap in the information provided, they could file a formal complaint with the OPCW or U.N. Security Council. “To date, no member state has done that,” she stated.
States have had four months to do so, since the United States and Russia agreed to facilitate removing Syria’s chemical weapons to forgo a military strike in response to last August’s chemical weapons attack against civilians. Only a little more than one month after the United Nations agreed to launch the joint mission with the OPCW to carry out the destruction, inspectors had viewed and dismantled 1,000 metric tons of Category 1 chemical weapons, 290 metric tons of Category 2 chemical weapons, and about 1,230 unfilled chemical munitions.
Meanwhile, the rest of Syria is engulfed in the ongoing civil war that continues to kill send people fleeing their homes by the thousands. U.S. officials told a Senate panel on Tuesday that the fighting had set back development in the country by three decades. The international community is preparing to launch a new round of talks between the government and rebels, dubbed informally as “Geneva II,” but infighting among more moderate rebel forces and jihadis has resulted in uncertainty on whether the main umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, will take part at all.