(CNSNews.com) – Despite talk of “good progress” from the U.N. chemical weapons watchdog, the Assad regime looks set to miss yet another key deadline in the U.N.-mandated timetable for shutting down its chemical warfare capabilities.
An announcement by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on Tuesday that Syria has now handed over about one-third of its declared weapons stock was met by cautious optimism – notwithstanding the fact it was meant to have surrendered all 1,300 metric tons of it by February 5.
That ignored Feb. 5 deadline followed an earlier missed deadline, Dec. 31, by which date the “most critical” chemical weapons (CW) – including sarin, mustard gas and VX – were to have been handed over at a Syrian port for removal by a consortium of international cargo ship and subsequent destruction by foreign governments.
Now the regime is fast approaching a third deadline that looks likely to fall by the way: By March 15, just nine days away, Syria is meant to have completed destroying 12 declared CW production facilities, a process it should have begun on Dec. 15.
Not only has the regime not started to do so, it is arguing that the facilities should be rendered inactive, rather than physically destroyed. The U.S. has warned that the proposed “inactivation” would be “easily reversible within days.”
All of these flouted deadlines were set down in an OPCW “plan of destruction,” as mandated by a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted on Sept. 27, which in turn endorsed a framework agreement hammered out between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier that month after a deadly chemical attack near Damascus in August.
The Security Council resolution, at Russia’s insistence, was diluted to remove any direct enforcement mechanism or automatic penalties for non-compliance. So far there have been no consequences for the regime’s breaches.
It recently presented an offer to complete the removal of all chemicals in 100 days – which would take until about the end of May, one month before the deadline for the entire arsenal to be eliminated.
After Western governments called that unacceptable, the regime lodged a new proposal, of 65 days.
At an OPCW executive committee in The Hague on Tuesday, OPCW director-general Ahmet Umzucu announced that by the end of this week Syria will have handed over 35 percent of the declared chemicals. (Most of that, however, comprises the less dangerous material; the proportion of “most critical” chemicals removed so far stands at just 16 percent, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday.)
“Given delays since the lapse of the two target dates for removal, it will be important to maintain this newly created momentum,” Umzucu told the council. “For its part, the Syrian government has reaffirmed its commitment to implement the removal operations in a timely manner.”
Noting that nearly one-third of the declared CWs had now been removed or destroyed, the special coordinator for the OPCW’s Syria mission, Sigrid Kaag said, “This is good progress and I expect further acceleration and intensification of effort.”
The U.S. ambassador to OPCW, Robert Mikulak, cautioned against over-optimism or complacency.
“To any members of this council who might be flush with optimism over the new Syrian plan, a word of caution is appropriate and necessary,” he said. “This council should resist any temptation to simply assume that the government of Syria will follow through on its new plan to remove chemicals from its territory. Syria’s dismal record of compliance to date with the council’s removal decisions should belie any such assumption.
Mikulak also pointed to the looming March 15 deadline which, he said, “Syria is about disregard.”
He said that while the U.S. has tried to reach an understanding with Syria on a plan for destroying the 12 facilities, the regime “has refused to negotiate, and has adamantly clung to its proposal to inactivate, rather than destroy, these CW production facilities.”
In the light of Syria’s “inertia,” Mikulak said the U.S. was proposing a plan demanding that Syria uses precision explosives to collapse the roofs of seven hardened facilities – by the March 15 deadline.
In the case of the other five facilities, which are underground, the proposal would allow an extension of the deadline – since destroying them is more technically challenging – but on condition that Syria take specified steps first to inactive them, “and then to physically destroy the entire underground structure.”
Dragging out the process
Some experts say that the agreement effectively made President Bashar Assad a partner with the international community, bolstering his position. As such, they say, he is in no hurry to comply.
“Syrian dawdling is understandable, because Assad understands that his chemical weapons arsenal has given him diplomatic leverage – which will evaporate when he is disarmed,” Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Stewart Patrick said last month, when the previous deadline for CW handover passed unmet.
Dany Shoham of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, a leading expert on biological and chemical warfare, wrote in a paper Tuesday that “prolonging the elimination process could preserve Assad’s position at the top of the Syrian hierarchy.”
“This is likely an incentive for Assad to drag out the process, and buys him time to salvage some of the arsenal, either inside Syria or by smuggling the weapons to Iran, Russia, or [the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist group] Hizballah.”
Shoham warned that even if Assad does eventually surrender all of his CW stocks – assuming that he has declared all that in fact exist – “Syria’s equally dangerous biological weapon stocks will remain.”
The deal negotiated between Kerry and Lavrov last September did not touch on biological weapons, even though experts say that some of the bacterial agents and toxins Assad is believed to possess are many times more deadly than chemical weapons.