WASHINGTON – The US strongly condemned Syria for its failure to prepare and package the bulk of its chemical weapons arsenal for removal from the country, six days before a UN deadline requires its government to have shipped its entire stockpile to the port at Latakia.
In September, Syria agreed to forfeit its massive chemical weapons stockpile to be destroyed at sea under strict time constraints, under threat of military force from Washington.
But with a major deadline approaching, only 4 percent of those weapons have been delivered to Latakia, and only two cargo shipments have left the port, each carrying away roughly 15 tons of material. According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, tasked with facilitating the removal of Syria’s arms, the Syrian regime has stockpiled at least 1,300 tons of chemicals.
“We all know that the Syrian regime has the capability to move these weapons, since they have been moved multiple times in the conflict,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Thursday, adding that the US was “deeply concerned” about the delay. “This isn’t rocket science here. They’re dragging their feet.”
Psaki said US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry never removed the prospect of military action from the table after threatening Syria’s Bashar Assad with assault in August. But they are focused on enforcing the deal that resulted from that standoff, she said.
“We’ve never taken the option, as it relates to Syria, off the table. But obviously what we’re pursuing now is the diplomatic path,” Psaki said. “There is still the possibility, and still the option here... that the Syrian regime can deliver on the promise that they will deliver the weapons to the port.”
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also condemned the Syrian government for the delay.
“I do not know what the Syrian government’s motives are – if this is incompetence – or why they are behind in delivering these materials,” Hagel told reporters in Warsaw on Thursday. “The Syrian government has to take responsibility to respect the commitment that had been made.”
Delays pose a difficult challenge for Obama, who has faced criticism at home and abroad for failing to do more to quell Syria’s nearly three-year-old civil war.
The president cited the chemical weapons deal in his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday, saying that “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.”
Underscoring the administration’s anxiety, Hagel said he discussed the issue in a call on Wednesday with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shogun, and asked him to “do what he could to influence the Syrian government to comply with the agreement that has been made” for destroying the chemical weapons.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a frequent Republican critic of Obama’s Syria policy, said: “Having the Russians disarm Assad is sort of like Mussolini disarming Hitler; I’m not so sure it’s going to work.”
According to US representative to the OPCW Robert Mikulak, “Syria has said that its delay in transporting these chemicals has been caused by ‘security concerns,’ and insisted on additional equipment – armored jackets for shipping containers, electronic countermeasures, and detectors for improvised explosive devices.”
But “these demands are without merit, and display a ‘bargaining mentality’ rather than a security mentality,” he said in a statement to the OPCW’s executive council.
The administration stopped short of threatening action if Syria failed to comply.
After threatening and then backing away from military action last year, there seems to be little support in Congress or among the war-weary American public for a new US military entanglement in the Middle East.
Failure to eliminate its chemical weapons could expose Syria to sanctions, although these would have to be supported in the UN Security Council by Russia and China, which have so far refused to back such measures against Assad.
“The question will be whether the Russians will tolerate Assad making them look bad,” said Dennis Ross, Obama’s former Middle East adviser. “I suspect he is dragging his feet to see what he can get away with.”