Syria Misses Chemical Weapons Deadlines, But No Talk of Consequences


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Syrian President Bashar Assad. Russia is one of Assad’s closest allies. (Photo: SANA, File)

( – The Assad regime looks set to miss a second consecutive deadline in a meticulously-negotiated timetable for surrendering its chemical weapons stocks for destruction, prompting protests by the Obama administration that it is “dragging its feet” but no talk of any steps to enforce compliance.

Instead, the administration is asking Russia to press its ally in Damascus to meet its commitments, contained in an agreement that saw the U.S. shelve threats to launch military strikes in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons last August.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday Secretary of State John Kerry had raised the matter with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, while Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said during a visit to Poland that he had discussed the matter with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu.

The three main deadlines set down in an agreement negotiated between the U.S. and Russia after the August attack were December 31 (the date by which the regime was to have moved its most dangerous chemicals to the port of Latakia for removal by Danish and Norwegian cargo vessels); February 5 (the remaining chemical to be moved to Latakia); and June 30 (the target date for completion of the elimination of the entire arsenal.)

But U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reported to the U.N. Security Council this week that Syria had missed the now month-old Dec. 31 deadline, and noted that the Feb. 5 deadline was looming.

Psaki echoed those concerns at a State Department press briefing, adding, “In all of this time, the Syrian regime has moved less than five percent of the chemicals to the port.”

“They’re dragging their feet,” she said. “We need them to pick up those feet and run with this and move forward in moving the chemical weapons stockpile to the port. The international community is prepared to take the steps we’ve committed to, and what we’re asking the regime to do and the Russians to put necessary pressure on them to do is to abide by their commitment that they agreed to just a couple of months ago.”

‘Ups and downs’

The deadly chemical weapons attack near Damascus on Aug. 21 occurred almost exactly one year to the day since President Obama had said the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict would be “a red line.”

U.S. plans to mount military strikes in response to the attack moved ahead, but were then suspended in favor of an agreement negotiated with Russia to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stocks.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Obama said that “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.”

Asked Thursday whether in the light of that statement the administration would explicitly remind Syria that the option of military force remains on the table, to prod them to meet their commitments, Psaki demurred.

“We feel the appropriate step today is to highlight the fact that they’re not meeting the obligation, that there’s more that can be done, that they have the tools and resources they need to fulfill their obligation,” she said.

Asked whether there was any plan for the administration to lay down “another red line” relating to the removal of the weapons from Syria, Psaki replied, “None that I’m aware of. I think what we’re focused on now is how we can continue down the path of the plan that’s in place.”

“Anytime you agree to and come to an agreement on a tough negotiation, you always have to prepare yourself that there will be ups and downs in the process, and we certainly were,” she said. “But it was still significant, and that remains the case even today, that the parties agreed to move forward with the removal of chemical weapons. And we are still hopeful that it can proceed from here.”

‘They need to fix this’

The framework agreement on destroying the chemical weapons, reached between Kerry and Lavrov last September, was subsequently embedded in a U.N. Security Council resolution.

The administration at the time hailed unanimous passage of the resolution as a major diplomatic achievement, even as critics pointed out that it included no direct enforcement mechanism and no automatic penalties for Syrian non-compliance.

Kerry disputed this, insisting that there would be consequences should the regime fail to meet the timetable. But any consequences require another Security Council resolution, and Russia made it clear from the outset that it would only support such a resolution if it agrees that a violation has been “100 percent proven.” (Russia and China have vetoed three Syria resolutions since the civil war began in March 2011.)

In Warsaw Thursday, Hagel said the U.S. was concerned about the Syrian lagging, and that he had asked Shoigu “to do what he could to influence the Syrian government to comply with the agreement that has been made, to continue to move these materials to the port of Latakia so that we can get back to the process of destroying these chemical weapons.”

Hagel said he did not know what Syria’s motives were for failing to keep to the timetable, but added, “they need to fix this, and that’s what we’re all working together to address.”

According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the chemical agents being removed from Latakia are to be taken to an Italian port, where they will be loaded onto an American container ship, the M/V Cape Ray, which has been modified to neutralize the chemicals at sea. The Cape Ray set sail from Portsmouth, Va. on Monday, bound for the Mediterranean.

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