The Syrian government has been dragging its feet on handing over its chemical weapons stockpile to the international community for destruction, the United States claimed on Thursday, an assessment that matches the latest United Nations report on the process.
The United States’ admonition of Syria came at the latest meeting of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Executive Council, of which the U.S. is a member. There Ambassador Robert P. Mikulak, the U.S. representative, said that the effort to remove Damascus’ chemical arsenal has “languished and stalled,” with only a fraction of the deadliest transported from the country. While a first shipment left Syria earlier this month, and a second on Monday, the process is far behind the original Dec. 31 date to remove all of the so-called Priority One chemicals from the country.
Syria has regularly blamed the security situation its ongoing civil war has created as the reason behind the delays, but the United States believes that the government has been hiding behind the situation as an excuse to have lengthy delays between movement of chemical agents. “It is imperative that the removal effort be conducted with regularity, rather than after long intervals,” Mikulak said. “In order for obligations to be kept, it is essential that the Syrian government establish a plan that will give the international community confidence that movements will be made regularly. There should be no doubt that responsibility for the lack of progress and increasing costs rests solely with Syria.”
Delays have also occurred due to Syria’s insistence that it requires specialized equipment — including “armored jackets for shipping containers, electronic countermeasures, and detectors for improvised explosive devices” — to protect its forces transporting the chemical agents. Those requests to the United Nations demonstrate, in Mikulak’s words, a “’bargaining mentality’ rather than a security mentality.” When Syria first requested these items, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon denied that they would be acted upon. “The United Nations will not procure or otherwise provide such dual-use material to the Government,” Ban writes. “Any assistance provided by the United Nations will be subject to strict conditions in order to ensure that it used solely for the intended purposes.”
Ban’s words were backed up in the most recent report of the Joint Mission between the United Nations and OPCW that is facilitating the destruction process, the fourth overall. Though drafted prior to the second shipment on Monday, it’s admonition of the Syrian government’s delays ring clear. “While remaining aware of the challenging security situation inside the Syrian Arab Republic, it is the assessment of the Joint Mission that the Syrian Arab Republic has sufficient material and equipment to carry out multiple ground movements to ensure the expeditious removal of chemical weapons material,” the report, released under Ban’s name, reads.
Despite the fact that the Feb. 5 deadline of removing all Priority Two agents from Syria is fast approaching, Ban believed that there is still a chance the ambitious plan to remove all chemical agents from Syria is still feasible. “The delay is not insurmountable,” Ban continues in the report. “The 30 June 2014 deadline is still five months away. However, it is imperative that the Syrian Arab Republic now examines the situation, intensifies its efforts to expedite in-country movements of chemical weapons material, and continues to meet its obligations” to the international community, he wrote.
President Barack Obama highlighted the deal that formed the framework for the OPCW mission during the State of the Union on Tuesday. “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated,” Obama said, two days after the U.S. deployed the ship destined to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons to the Mediterranean. The threat of force, issued following last August’s massive chemical attack against civilians, resulted in the United States and Russia working out the arrangement currently playing out in Syria.
Should the delays continue past the June deadline, however, the OPCW will have a decision to make, one that may bring force back onto the table. Under the terms of the United Nations Security Council resolution that demanded Syria hand over its stockpile, Ban and the OPCW Executive Director are required to jointly report Syrian non-compliance to the Council. Should that occur, the resolution promises that the Council will “impose measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.” This can range from the imposition of economic sanctions to the use of military force, neither of which permanent members China and Russia are in favor of. Given the wording of the resolution, though, should Syria be found in non-compliance, they may not have much of a choice.