THE HAGUE (Reuters) — At a closed door
meeting, Western governments led by the United States took Syria to task
for failing to surrender its chemical weapons under ambitious deadlines
agreed with Russia after a poison gas attack in August.
Speaker after speaker stood up to berate Damascus at the
Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), until
it came to Russia's turn and Moscow took a much more lenient view — the international split over Syria writ large.
Russia defended President Bashar al-Assad and said his government
needed more time to ship the chemicals safely through territory
where it is fighting rebels.
Syria missed a first deadline to give up the most dangerous toxins
on December 31 and another cut-off date passed on Wednesday, when it
was due to hand over all the remaining critical chemical materials.
The success of the destruction program, now also at risk of missing
the final June 30 deadline, is in the interests of both powers, but
the confrontation in The Hague on January 30 exposed a deep division
between Moscow and Washington over how to respond to Syria's lack of
The U.S.-Russian clash also bodes poorly for a broader
Moscow-Washington partnership that is seen as critical to resolving
other major foreign policy challenges, from Iran's nuclear program
to the Geneva peace talks for Syria, which are set to resume on
Monday. Further bad feeling was aroused by a leaked phone
conversation about Ukraine between U.S. officials.
Even with the latest setback, the agreement to destroy Syria's
chemical stockpile that averted a U.S.-led military strike and led
to a Nobel Peace Prize for the OPCW, can still be pulled off, U.N.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said.
The next major deadline is March 31, by when the most toxic
substances are supposed to be destroyed outside Syria on a special
U.S. cargo vessel, the Cape Ray, which is on the way from Virginia.
"The odds of Syrian compliance increase if Washington and Moscow
speak with one voice, but that isn't happening at present," Amy
Smithson, a chemical weapons expert at the U.S. Monterey Institute,
a leading think tank, told Reuters.
"These two countries are both key to the potential success of
chemical disarmament in Syria, not to mention a settlement to the
overall conflict, so hopefully they will rapidly find a way to
resolve this impasse," she said.
With Russia opposed to automatic U.N. Security Council action
against Syria if it is deemed non-compliant — a stage diplomats say
has not been reached — Washington finds itself in a similar
situation to last September, when it had threatened military action,
Western powers fear the program is being stalled intentionally to
give Moscow more time to provide military hardware to Damascus and
to enable Syria to retain its weapons of mass destruction as a
negotiation tool in the Geneva peace talks.
It is a process that has faced difficulties from the beginning, with
OPCW inspectors held up in Cyprus for weeks before they could get
into Syria to check its chemical arsenal. The August 21 gas attack
happened within days of their arrival and inspectors were earlier
shot at by snipers while trying to check allegations of chemical
Even as Moscow supports Assad in public, it is being urged to put
pressure on him to meet the targets. On Tuesday Russian Deputy
Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Syria was planning a large
shipment of chemical substances this month and was ready to complete
the process by March 1.
Still Western diplomats complained that the Russians were not doing
enough to encourage Assad to play ball, while other powers may be
reluctant to threaten action for fear of undermining the Geneva
"There are signs that the Russians are putting pressure on them
(Syria) to do it," a Western diplomat said. If the Syrians complete
the shipments of toxic chemicals by March 1, as the Russians said
then "that would be good."
Washington and other Western governments have rejected Syria's claim
that it needs more equipment to transport chemicals securely after
it received a long list of hardware to carry out the job.
The delay is already having a knock-on effect on the complex
logistical task, involving nearly a dozen countries, commercial
chemical destruction contracts and multimillion-dollar funding by
the international community.
The international community has invested heavily in the operation,
providing ships, vehicles, personnel and tens of millions of dollars
in donations to OPCW and U.N. funds.
Washington sent shipping containers, GPS trackers, armored vehicles
for inspectors, decontamination equipment and a cargo ship outfitted
with $10m in chemical weapons treatment systems.
China chipped in ambulances and surveillance cameras, Belarus gave
13 field kitchens, Russia sent 75 transport vehicles, 25 of them
armored. Denmark and Norway donated cargo ships and military patrol
boats. Italy offered use of a port. Germany and Britain will make
available toxic waste destruction facilities.
"While remaining aware of the challenging security situation inside
the Syrian Arab Republic, it is the assessment of the Joint Mission
that (Syria) has sufficient material and equipment to carry out
multiple ground movements to ensure the expeditious removal of
chemical weapons material," Ban said last week.
A senior Western diplomat said the Syrian government is "teasing us"
by dragging its heels while doing enough to avoid being declared in
non-compliance with its obligation to destroy its chemical weapons
"Our impression is that they (Assad's government) are managing this
issue in parallel with the Geneva discussion," he said. "Everything
is blocked so they are blocking on the chemical weapons to remind
us" of their power on this issue.
That sentiment was echoed by the U.S. Ambassador to the OPCW, Robert
Mikulak, who called on Damascus at the closed OPCW meeting to "take
immediate action" to resolve the impasse.
"Syria has said that its delay in transporting these chemicals has
been caused by 'security concerns' and insisted on additional
equipment — armored jackets for shipping containers, electronic
countermeasures, and detectors for improvised explosive devices.
These demands are without merit, and display a 'bargaining
mentality' rather than a security mentality," he said.
On February 6, a day after the deadline to hand over all critical
chemicals expired, OPCW/U.N. mission head Sigrid Kaag addressed the
U.N. Security Council on the matter.
Although she did not believe the Syrians were deliberately stalling,
she said cooperation must be speeded up if the June 30 deadline is
to be met.
A second senior Western diplomat said it was possible that Western
powers were overestimating Russia's leverage with Assad's
Still, Western nations are encouraging Moscow to use all its
influence on Damascus to resume complying with the timetable agreed
in September and October.
It is in Moscow's interests to ensure that the chemical weapons deal
doesn't fall apart. Russia doesn't want its reputation as a
diplomatic power tarnished, or Assad's government to face renewed
threats of U.S. air strikes at a time when the Syrian army appears
to have an edge over the opposition militarily.
"Of course it is in Russia's interest to see it go ahead. President
(Vladimir) Putin threw a safety belt to President Obama at a very
delicate moment," said Georgy Mirsky, a Middle East expert at the
Institute of the World Economy and International Relations in
The U.S. and Russia have invested political capital in the operation
to eliminate Syria's 1,300 metric ton stockpile, of which just 4.1
percent had been handed over for destruction.
"If it appears now that it was all in vain — that chemical weapons
will remain in Syria and that Bashar al-Assad is pulling a fast one — it will be President Putin who will be in a very bad situation
indeed," Mirsky said.
(Additional reporting by Lou Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols in New
York, Alistair Bell, Jim Loney, Matt Spetalnick and Lesley Wroughton
in Washington, Gabriela Baczynska and Steve Gutterman in Moscow and
Nicholas Vinocur in Paris; editing by Giles Elgood)