The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN said Saturday that Syria would fail to deliver its first shipment of chemical weapons to the international community. Under a deal agreed to earlier this year, Damascus would to give up the “most critical” chemicals first, most notably about 20 tons of mustard nerve agent. Russian trucks from 12 storage sites around Syria were supposed to have transported these chemical compounds to the northern port of Latakia by December 31st.
A joint OPCW-UN statement blames the missed deadline on a number of factors. First, fighting and insecurity have constrained chemical shipments; the Syrian government set restrictions for moving nerve agents when rebel fighters are nearby. Additionally, inclement weather and obscurely phrased, “logistical challenges,” have prevented delivery of chemicals to the port. One such “challenge” might be limited Syrian government control of the main highways linking the chemical sites with the ports. Even with such conditions, the OPCW reaffirms that Damascus retains “the ultimate responsibility” for turning over its chemicals to the international community for destruction.
Norwegian frigate HNoMS Helge Ingstad docked in Cyprus on December 14th. (Photo: AFP)
Even as the deadline passed, the international community remained ready to facilitate the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. A Norwegian frigate waiting for the chemicals, and a Danish destroyer protecting the frigate, left Syria’s mediterranean coast on Monday. The Norwegian ship, HNoMS Helge Ingstad, will likely return to port in Cyprus, where military commanders will await further orders. Meanwhile, work continues on the U.S. ship MV Cape Ray, with engineers saying the vessel would soon be ready to destroy up to two dozen metric tons of Syrian chemicals daily in international waters.
Late last year the UN Security Council agreed to a US-Russian brokered deal that would see all chemical weapons in Syria removed and destroyed by June 2014. While OPCW officials were able to destroy or disable much of equipment used to weaponize such nerve agents late last year, this week’s statement shows challenges remain ahead. Even if Damascus cooperates in destroying chemical agents at its declared weapons sites, Syria’s leaders could still try to hide other deadly chemicals from the international community.