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U.S. Envoy Accuses Assad of Slow-Walking Chemical Arms Removal

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

Workers handle a mock chemical munition at a German disposal site last October. A U.S. envoy on Thursday accused Syria's government of delaying the elimination of its chemical arsenal by "bargaining" for unnecessary security equipment. Workers handle a mock chemical munition at a German disposal site last October. A U.S. envoy on Thursday accused Syria's government of delaying the elimination of its chemical arsenal by "bargaining" for unnecessary security equipment. (Philipp Guelland/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States on Thursday asserted that Syria is slowing the dismantlement of its chemical arsenal by "bargaining" for unneeded security gear.

Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime has demanded "armored jackets for shipping containers, electronic countermeasures and detectors for improvised explosive devices" to help transport its warfare chemicals to a coastal city for removal by foreign ships, said Robert Mikulak, Washington's ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague.

However, such pleas "are without merit," and could threaten an international effort to eliminate the Syrian government's chemical-arms stockpile by an end-of-June deadline, the envoy told a gathering of the 41-nation OPCW Executive Council.

"It is essential that the Syrian government establish a plan that will give the international community confidence that movements will be made regularly" to send its warfare chemicals abroad for destruction, he said in prepared remarks to the OPCW governing body. The chemical-weapons watchdog agency is overseeing the disarmament operation, which began in the aftermath of an August nerve-gas strike allegedly responsible for more than 1,400 deaths, including women and children.

Removal of the weapons has proceeded slower than planned. Less than one-twentieth of the stocks had left the country as of Wednesday, leaving international authorities far from their initial goal of wrapping up removal by Feb. 5.

For months, Western nations reportedly have been resisting requests from Syria's government for chemical-security equipment that it might turn against rebels in the country's bloody civil war. Mikulak said Syria's chemical-warfare assets "have often been moved during the ongoing conflict without such equipment, demonstrating that Syria has been able to ensure sufficient protection to date with its current capabilities, and without this additional 'wish list' of equipment."

The U.S. official noted that the disarmament operation's international overseers now agree that Damascus is adequately equipped to safely transport the chemicals.

Damascus, though, last week said it is committed to sending its chemical stockpile overseas "as soon as possible," according to OPCW Director General Ahmet Üzümcü.

A senior Assad envoy said Damascus is "making intensive efforts to prepare for, and accelerate, the transportation of chemicals, and that it is currently working on a tentative schedule for completing the transportation of chemicals," Üzümcü said in a statement to his agency's governing board. The top OPCW official provided no further details.

Noting a separate concern on Thursday, Mikulak said Assad's government wants to eliminate several subterranean and above-ground chemical-weapon facilities through methods that fall short of full destruction.

Steps such as "welding doors shut and constructing interior obstacles ... are readily reversible within days and clearly do not meet the requirement of 'physically destroyed' as provided for by the [Chemical Weapons] Convention," he said.

He urged the OPCW governing board to "reject Syria's proposal to 'inactivate' its hangar and tunnel [chemical-weapon production facilities], rather than physically destroying them as the CWC requires."

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