WASHINGTON – The Obama administration Monday called on Syria to honor promises to surrender its chemical weapons stockpile, a day after international experts acknowledged delays in removing some of the most lethal toxins from the country.
U.S. officials conceded that a Tuesday deadline for ridding Syria of hundreds of tons of liquid poisons would not be met, citing stalled progress in transporting the chemicals across war-ravaged countryside to ships that will carry them out of the region. But the officials insisted that the overall effort to destroy President Bashar Assad’s chemical arsenal was on track.
“We continue to make progress, which has been the important part,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters. “It was always an ambitious timeline, but we are still operating on the June 30th timeline for the complete destruction.”
The group overseeing the elimination of Syria’s stockpile, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), blamed bad weather and security problems for delays in removing liquid chemicals from a dozen storage depots scattered across the country.
Russia has provided Syria with trucks to carry the toxins to Danish and Norwegian ships waiting in the port of Latakia, but as recently as Sunday, Syrians had made no effort to load the trucks, according to U.S. officials.
A senior State Department official said the weather and security concerns were legitimate, but expressed dismay at the slow progress on the ground. The official, who insisted on anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities, said there were indications that some “packaging” work had begun Monday.
“This is not a process where you wait for a sunny day and then get it all done. You need to get moving,” the official said. He said U.S. officials were “not ready to ascribe a political motive” to the delays, acknowledging that Syria faced security challenges in moving the chemicals across rebel-contested territory.
Harf noted that the Assad regime accepted responsibility for safely transporting the chemicals after agreeing in September to voluntarily surrender its estimated 1,000 metric tons of mustard gas and highly lethal nerve agents. The agreement followed a U.S. threat to launch airstrikes to punish Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians.