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Why Does Syria Still Have 95 Percent of Its Chemical Weapons?

By Danielle Wiener-Bronner

The Wire

Syria reportedly has gotten rid of less than five percent of of its chemical arsenal, flouting an upcoming deadline for removal of all its deadly stocks.

Bashar Assad's regime pledged in September to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile under international supervision.

According to Reuters, sources confirmed that the government has only shipped out 4.1 percent of its stock to a northern Syrian port. "It's not enough and there's no sign of more," someone with knowledge of the situation told Reuters.

In order to avoid what seemed to be inevitable military action against Syria, led by the U.S., the Syrian government agreed to an off-the-cuff deal proposed by John Kerry: Washington would not act against Syria if the country agreed to totally destroy its chemical stockpile. The agreement followed a period of intense global anger toward Assad's government, which many suspect was behind a nerve-gas attack that killed more than 1,000 Syrian civilians. The news that Syria is now six to eight weeks behind on its chemical weapons schedule comes as the much-delayed Geneva II talks are under way -- and don't seem to be making much progress.

Last week, Reuters reported that Western governments are frustrated with Syria for dragging its feet on the process, and are growing concerned because the process is taking so much longer than promised:

"Several foreign governments funding and assisting the process had expected more shipments would have already been made, the sources said, and frustration is growing," according to the wire report. "'It's starting to become a problem and they are at risk of being reported (to the United Nations) for non-compliance,' one source involved in the discussions told Reuters on condition of anonymity."

If Syria fails to complete the arms destruction as promised, it could be hit with sanctions from the international community. So why is it taking so long for Assad to follow through on his promise? Here are a few theories:

-- It's difficult to remove chemical weapons during a civil war

When world leaders agreed on disarmament plan, they acknowledged how difficult it would be to safely remove chemical arms in a war zone. Syria is leaning on this explanation now: "Syria, where civil war has killed more than 100,000 people and forced millions to flee, has blamed delays on security obstacles. It said the mission could not be safely carried out unless it received armored vehicles and communications equipment." Reuters reports.

As the Syrian civil war has spread and become more complex, with foreign soldiers joining the battle for and against Assad and anti-government forces splintering in ideologically disparate groups, few spots are spared the dangers of the conflict. In December, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it would be difficult to remove the arms.

But Reuters reports that diplomats aren't buying the excuse: "A source briefed on the situation said: 'Yes, it's true there is a war, but have you ever heard of a civil war without security issues? They have all the necessary means they need for transportation. Now they need to start shipping the chemicals out.'"

-- Lack of international support

Per the terms of the disarmament deal, Syria is responsible for shipping out its chemical weapons, and the global community must help figure out where to destroy the stockpile. Most countries, believe it or not, were not running at the chance to import 500 metric tons of poison gas. Finally, a plan emerged to destroy the weapons at sea, aboard a U.S. cargo ship called the Cape Ray. The mission is the first of its kind. Whatever remains will be sent to waste processing facilities in Britain and Germany. Though the destruction issue was eventually resolved, its possible that the Syrian government would feel less pressure to meet its deadline as international leaders squabble over their end of the agreement.

-- Syria does not intend to destroy its chemical weapons

Before the sarin gas attack prompted disarmament deal, President Barack Obama referred to the use of chemical weapons as a "red line," implying that the U.S. would target the Syrian government with a military strike if it was determined that Assad had poisoned his people.

Involvement would have been messy, however, especially at a late stage when the anti-Assad movement became indistinguishable from an Islamist insurgency with a strong anti-American sensibility. Obama was caught between a rock and a hard place. Taking action would involve the U.S. in yet another Mideast war, an option strongly opposed by the American people, or they would appear weak on the national stage by reneging on a threat.

The disarmament deal provided an unforeseen third way out of the morass, and was seized upon immediately. But if Obama's hesitance did appear weak, at least to the Assad government, it is possible that the Syrian government would be more willing to bet that the U.S. wouldn't follow through on further threats if the Syrian government failed to follow through on its disarmament commitment.

There is evidence to suggest that the delay was intentionally orchestrated by the government:

"U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested in a report to the Security Council this week that shipments had been unnecessarily delayed and urged the Syrian government to speed up the process," Reuters reported. "'All the indications are, and the secretary-general's report makes clear, that actually the regime has been sort of stalling on the implementation of the agreement,' [a] diplomat said. 'It will be important what [OPCW-UN mission head] Sigrid Kaag says about whether she thinks these delays are deliberately politically motivated and why or whether there's any truth in the weather, the security and those more technical aspects,' he said."

U.S. leaders appeared to have been warming to the idea of Assad staying in power in the past, steering away from rhetoric that requires his removal. And Assad's forces are more stable and unified than his opponents, who have suffered from debilitating internal divisions. Furthermore, the U.S. is finally making progress on a historic nuclear deal with Iran, which has long remained an ally of the Syrian President.

It is also possible that Syria agreed to the deal in order to turn attention away from the non-chemical horrors the government was carrying out on a daily basis. CNN reported earlier this month that there is strong evidence to suggest that Assad's government has been systematically documenting torture and killing of dissidents, an activity that could lead to convincing war crime allegations:

"A team of internationally renowned war crimes prosecutors and forensic experts has found 'direct evidence' of 'systematic torture and killing' by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, the lawyers on the team say in a new report. Their report, based on thousands of photographs of dead bodies of alleged detainees killed in Syrian government custody, would stand up in an international criminal tribunal, the group says."

If Assad is proven to be involved in such systematic murder of his people, there's even less reason for us to believe he has any intention of playing by the international rules.

Reprinted with permission from The Wire. The original story can be found here.

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