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Inspectors: Syria destroys chemical arms sites

  • Article by: LOVEDAY MORRIS and MICHAEL BIRNBAUM
  • Washington Post
  • October 31, 2013 - 9:55 PM

– Syria has destroyed its declared chemical-weapons production facilities, international inspectors said Thursday, marking a major step in the complex task of ridding the country of the weapons of mass destruction.

The declaration came a day before a Nov. 1 deadline as the team overseen by the inspectors hewed to an ambitious schedule for destroying Syria’s entire chemical arsenal by the middle of next year — a far more rapid process than comparable efforts in other countries and one that must be implemented in the middle of a civil war.

Weapons experts described the declaration as a milestone but warned that hurdles remain in the more challenging work of destroying the toxic agents and their precursor chemicals, some of which is expected to take place overseas. Syria has declared 1,290 tons of chemical agents and precursors, according to the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is tasked with overseeing the destruction process.

Weapons inspectors who have been in the country just one month say that despite battles raging across the country, deep international disagreement over how to stop the war and even what U.S. officials say was an Israeli strike on a Syrian army base late Wednesday, Syria has so far met all of its commitments and deadlines.

By doing so, Assad’s government can claim success in what it said would be a key benefit of the accord — seizing a new measure of credibility and portraying itself not as an outlaw regime but as a reliable and legitimate international player. But opponents of Assad, including the rebels, are deeply critical of the deal for that very reason — it has helped buttress his position but done nothing to stop the war.

“They want to tell you, ‘It’s not because you put a deadline — when we say something, we do it before the time,’ ” a pro-government Syrian journalist, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said of Syrian officials. “The main problem with the West, until now it never understood how the Syrian regime works. Whenever you threaten them you won’t get anything.”

Assad’s opponents have denounced the accord as a distraction, and they were dismayed that the chemical weapons attack in August that U.S. officials say killed 1,400 men, women and children near Damascus led not to U.S. military intervention, as President Obama initially threatened, but to an agreement that allows Assad’s supporters to portray him as a statesman.

The government’s international opponents emphasized on Thursday that the deal was still incomplete and that they still hold Assad accountable for the suffering of Syrians. The British Foreign Office said that while the destruction of chemical facilities was “an important first milestone, it brings no relief to the Syrian people,” since the government continues to use artillery, air power and “siege tactics” against civilians.

The process toward eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons program began in September, when Russia brokered an accord under which Syria agreed to surrender its stockpile after the Obama administration threatened military action against President Bashar Assad’s government. The threat was in response to deadly attacks in August, apparently using sarin gas, on civilians in rebel strongholds outside Damascus.

Destruction of the mixing equipment and unfilled missile warheads began in the first week of October, starting with relatively simple items such as high-speed saws and blowtorches.

“Destruction of the equipment may have been the easy bit,” said Karl Dewey, a proliferation analyst at IHS Jane’s, a defense and security consultancy. “As it stands, the country’s chemical weapons stockpiles remain and need to be destroyed. A host country for this to happen in needs to be found. Transport and safety issues need to be addressed, particularly given the wider security concerns.”

About 1,000 of the 1,290 tons of the declared stockpile, which is in 41 facilities at 23 sites, consists of chemical precursors, according to a report that the OPCW submitted to the U.N. Security Council a week ago. The remainder consists of “category 2” — or weaponized — chemical weapons. The Syrian government has also submitted information on 1,230 unfilled munitions and says it found two cylinders that did not belong to it containing chemical weapons, the report said.

OPCW and European security officials have said they are confident that the Syrian government’s declaration of its stockpile is relatively complete. U.S. security officials, however, have said they are trying to resolve discrepancies between that declaration and Western intelligence estimates of the number of Syrian chemical weapons sites.

“This is a process that has to be based on mutual trust,” OPCW spokesman Christian Chartier said Tuesday. “How can you be sure nothing has been hidden? You can’t. But any member state of OPCW is at liberty to share with us intelligence or suspicions of the existence of additional sites, in which case we have the capacity to launch a visit within a very short time frame.”

Others remain more skeptical. “History doesn’t give us many grounds for much optimism,” Dewey said. “Many past declarations — even those made under some kind of duress — have turned out to be less than accurate.”

The opposition has complained that the plan buys the Assad government more time and allows it to continue killing by other means with impunity.

“Even if the chemical weapons are destroyed, what effect would that have on the ground?” said Aya Mahaini, an activist from the Damascus suburb of Moadamiya, which was hit in the Aug. 21 attack. “We have been killed for the last three years with all different kinds of weapons — tanks, mortar shells, snipers. Destroy the chemical weapons, or don’t. That won’t matter, because with chemical weapons or without them, the killing continues, the rivers of blood continue.”

The New York Times contributed to this report.

© 2014 Star Tribune