Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com & Nick Cumming-Bruce and Rick Gladstone – 2014-01-09 01:38:02
Syria: Rebels Attacked Two Chemical Arms Sites
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(January 8, 2014) — Details are still scant on what damage was done, but the Syrian government has confirmed that two different chemical arms storage sites have sustained rebel attack.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal, also confirmed the attack, but at a closed door meeting where the details were also kept a closely guarded secret.
The OPCW and Syria have been careful to keep details of the disarmament process limited, specifically over fears that further details might give the rebels ideas of where things are and what to attack.
The OPCW missed the December 31 deadline for moving all chemical materials from Syria, but the most dangerous chemicals have already departed on ships, so the biggest threats were likely already gone before the rebel hits.
Syrian officials have made much of their eagerness to be rid of the last of their arsenal, and Russia has promised to see the goods ferried to Latakia ports to be shipped abroad, though security risks, underscored by today’s announcement, mean that’s going to remain a difficult long-term proposition.
Syria Reports 2 Attacks
On Chemical Arms Sites
Nick Cumming-Bruce and Rick Gladstone
GENEVA (January 8, 2014) — Syria’s government said Wednesday that insurgents had assaulted two storage sites for some of the deadly chemical weapons components it has pledged to eliminate. It was the first time the Syrian authorities had reported such attacks in the three months since an international effort began to sequester and purge the country of the banned munitions.
Bassam Sabbagh, the Syrian representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Hague-based group that is helping oversee the destruction of the Syrian arsenal, reported the attacks at the group’s executive council meeting, according to a European diplomat who was present. The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting’s deliberations were private and the Syrian’s account was not publicly disclosed.
The attacks, if confirmed, underscore the difficulties in securing and destroying the chemical weapons in the midst of a civil war, a point that the organization’s officials have repeatedly made since an ambitious joint mission with the United Nations to eliminate them began in early October with the Syrian government’s consent.
The Syrian government is facing increased pressure to accelerate the process for ridding the country of the most dangerous materials among the 1,200 tons of toxic agents it has amassed over the years. It missed the deadline for exporting them by Dec. 31. The entire arsenal must be destroyed by June 30, under a Security Council resolution approved in September.
The first cargo of the most dangerous materials bound for export was loaded onto a Danish vessel on Tuesday in the Syrian port of Latakia, a step that the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons called an important sign of progress.
Officials declined to comment on the account by Mr. Sabbagh, who told the executive council that insurgents had assaulted a storage site near the city of Homs and a second site outside Damascus, according to the European diplomat. Mr. Sabbagh did not specify when the attacks took place, the identities of the attackers or what damage, if any, had resulted, but said that the attacks “would have been disastrous if the terrorist plans had worked,” the European diplomat said.
“It was unexpected,” the diplomat said. “I was surprised that this was the first we had heard of them.”
On Wednesday, the top United Nations official coordinating the joint mission in Syria briefed the Security Council privately on the progress and told reporters at United Nations headquarters afterward that Syria was eager to get rid of the stockpile “within the shortest possible delay.”
The official, Sigrid Kaag, said nothing about attacks on Syrian storage facilities. But she said that “security is a big factor in all that takes place” and that the mid-2014 deadline for the complete destruction of the Syrian arsenal could still be met despite the civil war raging in Syria.
Ms. Kaag said the public should not worry about the deadliest compounds, known as Priority 1 chemicals, aboard the Danish vessel, which will remain at sea with the cargo, then dock at Latakia again to collect the remainder when it is ready to be loaded.
Once the entire stockpile of the deadliest compounds, estimated to total 500 tons, is on the ship, it will go to Italy, where the chemicals will be transferred to an American naval vessel equipped to render them harmless.
“They’re safe and secure, they’re properly guarded, and all efforts have been made to keep them in that way,” Ms. Kaag told reporters. “Everything has been done to make sure that this is properly handled.”
She declined to specify how many tons were in the initial cargo, how long the Danish ship would wait offshore or how many times it would have to return to Latakia to load the remainder. Such details, she said, are part of a “very tightly held, and I think rightly so, operation.”
Asked to rate the level of cooperation from the Syrian authorities, Ms. Kaag described it as constructive, but said “I’m not in the rating business.”
The transportation and export of the most dangerous chemicals, which include mustard gas, VX nerve agent and the agents needed to create sarin gas, have always been considered the most hazardous steps of the operation. Yet an unusually collaborative international effort is underway, including maritime security provided by Russia, China, Norway and Denmark.
Syria’s pledge to renounce chemical weapons and join the treaty that bans them was a product of intensive diplomacy by the United States and Russia. The agreement averted an American military response to a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21 that killed hundreds of civilians. The United States blamed the government of President Bashar al-Assad; Mr. Assad and rebels seeking to depose him blamed each other.
While the Syrian authorities made rapid progress destroying the facilities for making chemical weapons and the munitions for delivering them, the process for getting the chemicals out of the country has been much slower.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and diplomats following the proceedings in The Hague have carefully avoided accusing Mr. Assad of any backsliding, but the tone of their comments has taken on a firmer edge.
“We want to make it clear that any additional delays could really imperil the ability to meet the overall deadlines,” Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the organization, said in a telephone interview. “What also needs to be made clear is that we need to see activity pick up now.”
Nick Cumming-Bruce reported from Geneva, and Rick Gladstone from New York.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.