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Further Delays Hit Syria Chemical Weapons Disarmament

  • Henry Ridgwell

The operation to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons continues to be delayed by security problems and bad weather. Several countries have sent warships to escort the weapons offshore - but the shipments have yet to reach the Syrian coast. However, officials involved in the operation insist the overall operation is still on track.

The Norwegian frigate Helge Ingstad is currently waiting in international waters for the order to enter Syria.

Nearby lies the Taiko, one of the world’s largest container ships, which will transport the chemical weapons to a specially-adapted U.S. ship, where they will be destroyed.

“As to military threat," explains Per Rostad, commander of the Helge Ingstad, "I perceive the threat level to be very manageable, but there might be other issues, problems with the containers, problems getting alongside, machinery breakdown, that kind of stuff.”

First, the weapons must be transported to the port of Latakia. Last month Syrian government forces re-captured two key rebel-held towns on the route from Damascus to Latakia. But continuing security problems and poor weather meant a December 31 deadline was missed.

“If one looks at all the progress that has been made, and a couple of months ago who would have thought that Syria would have declared all of its chemical weapons, that all of its chemical weapons abilities would have been destroyed, that this many countries would be cooperating together - Russia and the United States and China and other countries, hand in hand,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the disarmament program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Alongside Norway and Denmark, China is also deploying a warship to join the convoy escorting the weapons.

"The reason for China to do this is to push forward the political resolution of the Syrian issue," said Li Baodong, China's vice foreign minister. "This fully attests to China's responsibility for maintaining world peace and security as one of the U.N. Security Council permanent members."

The willingness of the international community to cooperate on the operation is unprecedented, says Fitzpatrick.

“Very few of them wanted to get involved in a conflict, an intervention… in fact nobody wanted to get involved in the intervention. But when it comes to a peace effort, destroying the chemical weapons, everybody’s on board,” he said.

A chemical attack on an area called Ghouta in August last year prompted international outrage. The Syrian government denies it was responsible - but under international pressure, agreed to give up its chemical stockpile.

Mahmoud al-Hamza of the Syrian National Council, a coalition of opposition groups, welcomed progress towards destroying the weapons.

"The liquidation of these weapons would be a big success for the international community at large and not just a victory of the Syrian nation," he said. "Of course, we are speaking against these weapons but, for us, the real life conditions which Syrians face and care about are more important."

Those conditions are getting more desperate. Footage posted on the Internet Tuesday purports to show the shelling of residential districts in Homs and Damascus. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 130,000 people have now been killed in the conflict.