By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
BEIRUT — The Syrian government has shipped out almost 90 percent of its chemical weapons material, raising hopes that the war-ravaged nation can meet a Sunday deadline to comply with a disarmament accord, an international regulator said Tuesday.
The latest shipment on Tuesday to the Mediterranean port of Latakia means that 86.5 percent of the weapons material has been removed, according to a statement from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is overseeing destruction of Syria’s toxic chemical stockpile.
That amount includes 88.7 percent of the 700 metric tons of the most toxic, “priority 1” chemicals, among them mustard gas and precursor materials for the nerve agents sarin and VX.
“This latest consignment is encouraging,” Ahmet Uzumcu, director-general of the OPCW, said in a statement. “We hope that the remaining two or three consignments are delivered quickly.”
Upon arrival in Latakia, the chemicals are placed on cargo ships for removal, said Michael Luhan, an OPCW spokesman.
In a deal approved by the United Nations, Syrian President Bashar Assad agreed last year to surrender his nation’s decades-old chemical weapons arsenal to avert U.S. airstrikes, which had been threatened in response to poison gas attacks outside Damascus.
Washington and its allies blamed Assad’s forces for the Aug. 21, 2013, chemical strikes. Assad and Russia alleged that U.S.-backed rebels mounted the lethal assault in a covert bid to frame Damascus and spur U.S. strikes.
A U.N. investigation confirmed mass casualties from sarin gas but did not assign blame.
After Syria missed two earlier deadlines to turn over its toxic stockpiles, Washington accused Damascus of stalling.
Syria blamed the delay in part on rebel attacks targeting chemical convoys. Rebel rocket strikes on Latakia were meant to disrupt the process, the Syrian government charged.
Under a revised plan, Syria has promised to remove all of its chemical weapons material by April 27. In the last two weeks, Syria has shipped out six batches, “marking a significant acceleration in the pace of deliveries,” the OPCW said. Russia provided armored vehicles and other equipment to assist the chemical convoys, which sometimes traversed roads near contested zones where rebels were present.
The U.N. set June 30 as a deadline for destruction of the chemicals. But getting the toxic materials out of Syria amid a raging civil war has been a considerable obstacle.
“We continue to say that if the Syrians meet their deadline of April 27, that keeps us within striking distance of completing the destruction of the chemicals by mid-year,” Luhan, spokesman for the Hague-based OPCW, said in a telephone interview.
Various nations are participating in the complex effort to ship the chemical materials from Latakia for disposal outside of Syria. The most hazardous agents are to be neutralized at sea aboard a specially equipped U.S. ship, the MV Cape Ray.
Photo via AFP