The Obama administration publicly blamed the Syrian government for delays in destroying its chemical arms stockpiles this week, calling upon President Bashar al-Assad's regime to take immediate action ahead of a second major deadline. In a statement to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), US ambassador Robert Mikulak accused Syria of delaying the process for unwarranted reasons, suggesting that the government is stalling as a ploy to gain leverage in negotiations.
An agreement reached last year requires Syria to remove and destroy its entire chemical arsenal by June 30th. The country was supposed to destroy its most dangerous Priority One chemicals by December 31st, and remove its entire stockpile from the country by February 5th. According to the US, however, just 4 percent of Priority One chemicals have been destroyed so far, and the country is likely to miss the February deadline, as well. The OPCW is overseeing the process, which was enacted under an agreement that narrowly avoided a US military strike against the Assad regime.
"This is not rocket science. They're dragging their feet."
In a statement to the OPCW on Thursday, Mikulak said that "the effort to remove chemical agent and key precursor chemicals from Syria has seriously languished and stalled." He added that Assad's "open-ended delaying of the removal operation could ultimately jeopardize the carefully timed and coordinated multistate removal and destruction effort."
The Syrian government, still engaged in a nearly three-year civil war with rebel groups, has blamed the delay on security concerns, saying it needs more equipment to ensure the chemicals' safe transfer out of the country. But Mikulak told the OPCW that Assad's demands "are without merit and display a ‘bargaining mentality’ rather than a security mentality." The Syrian government and opposition groups are holding peace negotiations in Geneva this week, though progress has been slow.
"This is not rocket science," Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, told the New York Times. "They're dragging their feet."
Mikulak also criticized Syria for deactivating 12 chemical production facilities, rather than destroying them, as stipulated in the agreement. The facilities, housed in airport hangers and underground areas, are currently "inactivated," but Mikulak said these measures could be "readily reversible within days."
"The timeline originally agreed upon was terribly optimistic."
Syria began destroying its chemical weapons arsenal in October, drawing swift praise from US Secretary of State John Kerry. So far, only two shipments have been removed from the country. They will be loaded aboard a US cargo ship and destroyed in international waters.
The US appears to be growing impatient with Assad's delays, though experts say that considering the deadly circumstances of Syria's civil war, setbacks are hardly a surprise.
"The timeline originally agreed upon was terribly optimistic in my opinion, and in an active theatre of war I am not surprised by delays," says Dan Kaszeta, a London-based security consultant and former officer in the US Chemical Corps. "Whether these delays are deliberate or only happenstance based on wartime chaos and confusion, I can't say."