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Syria Likely to Miss Deadline to Destroy Chemical Weapons

  • Reuters

American ship MV Cape Ray - on an unprecedented mission to collect and destroy highly toxic chemicals that form part of Syria’s chemical weapons program - is docked at Naval Station in Rota, Spain, Feb. 13, 2014.

American ship MV Cape Ray - on an unprecedented mission to collect and destroy highly toxic chemicals that form part of Syria’s chemical weapons program - is docked at Naval Station in Rota, Spain, Feb. 13, 2014.

Syria has relinquished only 11 percent of its chemical weapons in three shipments, and it increasingly appears the nation will miss a politically-loaded midyear deadline to completely destroy the toxic stockpile, sources told Reuters on Friday.

Syria already should have handed over the 1,300 tons of toxic chemicals declared to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [OPCW], the body overseeing the process with the United Nations under a Russian-American deal.

A third shipment this week contained 54 metric tons of hexamine, a raw material for explosives, bringing the total shipped so far to a bit more than 140 tons, three sources at the OPCW said.

That includes only about 5 percent of the most toxic priority chemicals, according to the sources.

“Let's be honest, the important materials have not yet been brought, except a little consignment at the beginning. That means we are well behind schedule,” said one source. “They must speed up if we are to make the deadline. We should have been ready [to start destruction] 10 days ago and we haven't even started.”

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Sigrid Kaag, the head of the joint U.N./OPCW mission, both have recently expressed confidence the June 30 deadline can be met.

The next deadline is the end of March, when the most toxic chemicals, including sarin and mustard gas and their precursors, are supposed to have been destroyed outside the country.

“Rather than having handed over 11 percent, I see them as being 89 percent behind schedule,” said another source involved in the process. “It is imperative that they get a move-on if they are to meet the target date.”

Missing the June 30 deadline would have serious political implications, with Washington and Moscow having both invested diplomatic credibility in the chemical weapons elimination process, brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart.

The United States has sent the MV Cape Ray, a ship outfitted with special equipment to neutralize the chemicals at sea, and says it will need 90 days to destroy roughly 500 metric tons of chemical weapons.

To meet that target, Syria would need to ship dozens of loads in coming weeks. The sources said this does not appear likely.

It is unclear what will happen if the deadline is missed. Russia, Syria's key ally at the United Nations, is opposed to sanctions.

By agreeing to give up his weapons of mass destruction, Assad averted U.S. led missile strikes, the threat of which was prompted by the Aug. 21 poison gas attack outside Damascus that killed hundreds of women and children.

Metal jackets

Syria has blamed the delay on the security situation due to fighting with insurgents, which has been ongoing for nearly three years and has killed more than 130,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.

The Assad government has requested that more than a dozen shipping containers used to transport chemical weapons be outfitted with metal plating, radio scramblers and explosive detection equipment, to keep their cargo secure.

The United Nations has said it believes Damascus has all the equipment it needs and must speed up the process. The chemical weapons are supposed to be transported from around 10 sites across the country to the northern port of Latakia, where they will be loaded onto Danish and Norwegian ships.

Five armored containers are expected to arrive this week and another 10 in the coming month, sources said. However, they said the armor adds new logistical hurdles to what is already a complex, expensive international effort.

The armor, funded by the United Nations, is so heavy it will limit the chemical cargo that can be carried. Cargo will have to be transferred to other containers when it leaves the war zone so that the armored containers can be reused.

“The whole discussion about security is nonsense,” said one Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They have been moving this stuff around for years without armored vehicles, why do they need it now?”

Commercial destruction

The OPCW said Friday it had awarded two companies contracts to destroy around 800 metric tons of chemicals from Syria and millions of liters of effluent toxic waste from hydrolysis of other chemicals onboard the MV Cape Ray.

Ekokem of Finland and a U.S. unit of France's Veolia Environnement were awarded contracts, for which the OPCW had earmarked 40 million euros.

The international community has invested heavily in the operation, providing ships, vehicles, personnel and tens of millions of dollars in donations to OPCW and U.N. funds.

Washington gave shipping containers, GPS trackers, armored vehicles for inspectors, decontamination equipment and the cargo ship outfitted with a $10 million chemical treatment system.

China sent ambulances and surveillance cameras, Belarus gave 13 field kitchens, Russia donated 75 transport vehicles, 25 of them armored. Denmark and Norway provided cargo ships and military patrol boats. Italy offered use of a port. Germany and Britain will make available toxic waste destruction facilities.

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