Syria details part of its chemical weapons arsenal

Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to review inventory next week

US secretary of state John Kerry.

US secretary of state John Kerry.

Sat, Sep 21, 2013, 13:27

Syria has given details of some of its chemical weapons to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) watchdog at The Hague yesterday but needs to fill in gaps by next week to start a rapid disarmament operation that may avert US air strikes.

At the weapons watchdog, the UN-backed agency which is to oversee the removal of President Bashar al-Assad’s arsenal, a spokeswoman said: “We have received part of the verification and we expect more.”

She did not say what was missing from a document one UN diplomat described as “quite long”. The watchdog’s 41-member executive council is due to meet early next week to review Syria’s inventory and to agree on implementing last week’s United States-Russia deal to eliminate the entire arsenal in nine months.

The timetable was set down by US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov a week ago in Geneva.

US military strike
There they set aside differences to agree a plan to deprive Mr Assad of chemical weapons and so remove the immediate threat from Washington of launching military action.

That plan set a rough deadline of Saturday for Syria to give a full account of the weapons it possesses. Security experts say it has about 1,000 tonnes of mustard gas, VX and sarin, the nerve agent UN inspectors found after hundreds were killed by poison following attacks on rebel-held areas on August 21st.

Mr Kerry said he had spoken to Mr Lavrov and they had agreed to continue co-operating, “moving not only towards the adoption of the OPCW rules and regulations, but also a resolution that is firm and strong within the United Nations”.

One western diplomat warned that a failure by Mr Assad to account for all the suspected stockpile would cause world powers to seek action at the UN Security Council to force Damascus to comply.

If there were gaps in the documentation, said the diplomat, “this matter is going to go straight to the security council”.

The US and its allies said the UN inspectors’ report this week left no doubt that the Assad forces were responsible for the killings. Mr Assad, however, has blamed the rebels and Moscow says evidence of responsibility is unclear.

The Syrian government has accepted the plan and has already sought to join the OPCW. For Mr Assad, the Russian proposal to remove chemical weapons provided an unexpected reprieve from military action which US president Barack Obama had planned after the attack. For Obama, it solved a dilemma posed when he found Congress unwilling to support war on Syria.

Once the watchdog executive has voted to follow the Lavrov-Kerry plan in a meeting expected early next week, the security council is due to endorse the arrangements, marking a rare consensus after two years of East-West deadlock over Syria.

However, Russia opposes attempts by western powers to have the security council write in an explicit and immediate threat of penalties.

Unilateral action
It wants to discuss ways of forcing Syrian compliance only in the event Damascus fails to co-operate.

Obama has warned that he is still prepared to attack Syria, even without a UN mandate, if Mr Assad reneges on the deal.

Syria’s rebels, who have been fighting to end four decades of Assad family rule since 2011, have voiced dismay at the US-Russian pact and accuse their western allies of being sidetracked by the chemical weapons issue while Assad loyalists use a conventional arsenal to crush the revolt.

That may mean that the official opposition look more to its Arab and Turkish supporters for help.

It may also hamper western and Russian efforts to bring the warring parties together for a peace conference. Moscow and Washington have said progress on removing chemical weapons could pave the way for a diplomatic effort to end a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 and destabilised the region.

The increasing brutality of the fighting, especially along sectarian lines, and also a fragmentation into rival camps, particularly on the rebel side, will also hamper negotiations.

Yesterday al-Qaeda-linked fighters and a unit of Syrian rebels declared a truce after two days of clashes in the town of Azaz near the Turkish frontier that highlighted divisions in the opposition, in which hard-line groups are powerful.

The Assad army, backed by Shia Iran and dominated by officers from Mr Assad’s Alawite religious minority, has mobilised militia and fighters from the Lebanese Shia militant group Hizbullah. Alawites are a minority Shia sect.

Most rebels are from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. But factions have split as foreign fighters driven by jihad have flocked to the country, often at odds with local Syrians. Ethnic Kurds in the north have fought both sides. – (Reuters)

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