Syria missed a second deadline to hand over its stockpile of chemical weapons on Wednesday in a delay that puts the June 30 target date for the complete destruction of its deadly weapons program in jeopardy. The Syrian government attributed the delay to security concerns, but it could also be a stalling tactic. Government officials and representatives of the opposition groups aligned against President Bashar Assad are due to reconvene in Geneva on Feb. 10 for another round of negotiations over Assad’s role in a future Syria. Even if the regime has no intention of ever using its chemical weapons again, holding onto them for a little longer could provide good leverage going into talks.
Faced with the threat of U.S. military strikes, Syria agreed in September to end its chemical weapons program. Those threats followed an attack in a Damascus suburb on August 21 that killed 1,429 people, including some 400 children, according to U.S. officials. (The attack has been widely attributed to the regime, but the government blames rebels). The Obama Administration based its assessment on a series of horrific YouTube clips depicting victims writhing and foaming at the mouth and hundreds of shrouded corpses. As part of the deal, the Syrian government pledged to adhere to a strict timeline that would see the removal, by Dec. 31, of the first round of lethal chemicals that included precursors for the manufacture of sarin. Sarin is thought to have been the principal agent deployed in the August attack, according to a subsequent U.N. investigation. Syria missed that deadline by nearly a month, and even then less than five percent of the 700 tons from that first round of chemicals were shipped out of the Mediterranean port of Latakia. An additional 500 tons of the moderately dangerous “category 2” chemicals were to be shipped out on February 5. They were not.
The next deadline is March 31, when the most toxic chemicals are to be destroyed aboard a specially outfitted U.S. cargo vessel parked in international waters in the Mediterranean. Despite assurances by the regime and its backer Russia that the next deadline will be met, it is unclear how Syria will be able to catch up for lost time. Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad blamed rebels for the missed deadlines, telling the state news agency the “difficulties that Syria faces, particularly in the framework of its fight against terrorism, may at times prevent it from implementing some of its commitments.” Other officials said that requests by the government for armored vehicles and communications equipment from the international community had gone unfulfilled, causing further delays. Syria says it needs the vehicles and equipment to safely transport the chemicals. The U.N. disagrees.
Even as Britain threatened to bring the issue up at Thursday’s U.N. Security Council meeting, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for calm. “I believe the process has been moving on rather smoothly even though there have been some delays,” he told reporters in the Russian city of Sochi Thursday morning. It was as much a conciliatory gesture as a subtle admonition. The June 30 deadline “may be a very tight target,” he said, “but I believe that it can be done with the full support of the Syrian government.”
The problem is that it is not in the government’s interest to get rid of those chemicals. The U.S. and the U.N. have partnered with the regime to remove those weapons, and it would be difficult for anyone else — even an opposition-led government — to do so. Only the regime controls the necessary equipment, knowledge and military might to safely remove the chemicals. Repercussions would be swift were the regime ever to deploy chemical weapons, but as long as the weapons remain on Syrian soil they serve as a kind of insurance policy. U.S. intelligence chief James Clapper implied as much in a Feb. 4 address to Congress. “The prospects are right now that [Assad] is actually in a strengthened position than when we discussed this last year, by virtue of his agreement to remove the chemical weapons.” With no real punishment for missing deadlines, the regime has little incentive to rush. The more Assad drags his feet, the longer he has a chance of staying in power.