GENEVA — Syria is likely to miss its year-end deadline for getting its most deadly chemical weapons out of the country despite an international effort to mobilize the resources needed to do so, according to the United Nations and the international monitoring group overseeing the program.
Syria has until mid-2014 to destroy its chemical weapons program under the deal struck by Russia and the United States in September. To meet that challenging timetable, it agreed with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to remove about 500 tons of its most toxic chemicals by the end of this year and the remaining roughly 700 tons of its stockpile by early February.
“At this stage, transportation of the most critical chemical material before December 31 is unlikely,” the United Nations and the chemical weapons group said in a joint statement released Saturday.
The OPCW had warned of possible delays when it approved the plan, and the statement noted the “important progress” Syria has made in dismantling its chemical weapons program in the last three months.
The plan the group agreed to earlier this month called for Syria to transport the “critical” chemicals, including some 20 tons of sulfur mustard and precursors for making sarin and VX nerve gas, from 12 storage sites to the port of Latakia. Danish and Norwegian ships are to transport them to an Italian port for transfer to a U.S. vessel fitted with special equipment for destroying them at sea.
Once movement of the chemicals gets under way the mission can be conducted quite quickly, but it appears that Syria has not yet started transporting any chemicals, according to observers familiar with the mission, who spoke only on the condition they not be identified publicly because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Syria now has “virtually all” of the logistical and security assets it needs to undertake the movement of its chemical weapons, Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the OPCW, said after a meeting Friday in Moscow of all countries providing maritime support for the operation. Russia, which has shipped armored vehicles to Syria to transport the chemicals, is due to provide security at the Latakia port and, with China, Denmark, and Norway, has offered to provide naval escorts for part of the voyage.
But transporting the chemicals by road to Latakia poses a particular challenge. Syrian government forces, which reportedly control the road from Damascus to the port, may still face the danger of rebel attacks.
In developments Sunday, the Syrian government evacuated about 5,000 people from an embattled town near Damascus where al-Qaeda-linked rebels have been battling government troops for two weeks, the state news agency said.
Opposition fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, swept into Adra northeast of the capital in mid-December, reportedly killing civilians, many of whom are members of the Alawite and Druse sects. Both minority communities largely support President Bashar Assad, who himself is an Alawite.
Shortly after the rebels pushed into Adra, Syrian soldiers surrounded the area and there has been heavy fighting there since.
An activist group said the death toll from nearly two weeks of Syrian government airstrikes on opposition-held areas of the northern city of Aleppo has surpassed 500.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.