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Chemical weapons removal from Syria nearly complete

BEIRUT — With its latest deadline days away, Syria is close to eliminating its stockpile of chemical weapons, monitors said Tuesday, an improbable accomplishment in the midst of civil war that is likely to diminish further the possibility of international intervention.

After a slow start that prompted U.S. accusations of stalling, the government of President Bashar Assad has shipped almost 90% of its chemical weapons materials out of the country, raising hope that it can finish the job by Sunday.

A United Nations plan that averted punitive U.S. airstrikes last year sets June 30 as the deadline for all of Syria's chemical weapons materials to be destroyed. But the first and hardest task has been shipping it out of the country through the Mediterranean port of Latakia.

The destruction of the weapons would be one of the few positive developments in three years of war that has left tens of thousands of Syrians dead and forced millions from their homes. And it would allow the Obama administration to claim a success in its response to the use of chemical weapons in suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian capital, last August.

After moving warships into position off Syria's coast, President Obama announced that he would seek congressional authorization for military action — and met stiff resistance. The deal to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons was brokered by Russia, an ally of Assad.

The Syrian leader may have concluded that he can continue making gains against rebel forces without resorting to chemical weapons. Military gains also have secured roads to the coast, making it easier to remove the arsenal.

"I honestly thought Assad would begin to drag his feet on this sooner, particularly when the Russians became involved in the Ukraine," said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "But he didn't.... Obviously in this case he decided it was better to work with the Americans."

Syria did miss a couple of earlier deadlines, but declared that it could remove the arsenal by April 27. The shipment Tuesday means that 86.5% of its toxic weapons material has been removed, according to a statement from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Hague-based group overseeing the destruction of the stockpile.

That includes 88.7% of the 700 metric tons of the most toxic 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."

In the last two weeks Syria has shipped out six batches, "marking a significant acceleration in the pace of deliveries," the OPCW said.

Some skeptics have voiced concern that Syria will be able to conceal chemicals not declared to the international watchdog. But OPCW officials say no evidence has emerged of major discrepancies from on-site inspections.

The news that Syria's toxic stockpiles may be close to elimination comes as U.S. officials and their allies say they are investigating reports that Syrian forces have deployed chlorine gas on the battlefield. Chlorine, first used as a weapon in World War I, is not on the list of toxic chemicals being removed from the country. Syrian officials say it is the rebels who have used chlorine.

Washington and its allies blamed Assad's forces for the Aug. 21, 2013, chemical strikes near Damascus. Assad and Russia alleged that U.S.-backed rebels were responsible. A U.N. investigation confirmed mass casualties from sarin gas but did not assign blame.

Many observers questioned whether Syria could completely eliminate the weapons, especially in such a short period. They cited the threat of rebel attack and internal opposition to relinquishing what had long been regarded as a strategic and symbolic threat against neighboring Israel. Many critics also viewed Assad's agreement as an attempt to buy time, since his cooperation was necessary to eliminate the weapons.

Outside experts noted how long it has taken to eliminate chemical weapons in other nations, including Libya, the United States and Russia.

In January, after Syrian authorities missed several deadlines, Washington accused Damascus of stalling. Robert P. Mikulak, the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, said Syria was engaged in "open-ended delaying."

Russian and Syrian officials feared that delays would revive the threat of U.S. military intervention in Syria, the one thing that might change the course of the war. Russia reportedly pressed Syria to accelerate the effort.

Western officials balked at Syrian requests for armored vehicles and other material to help protect the weapons convoys, fearing the equipment would be used to fight U.S.-backed rebels. But Moscow came through with 25 armored trucks, other vehicles and equipment.

Meanwhile, Syrian military gains against the rebels improved security along strategic routes. Major roads, particularly the highway north from Damascus to the central city of Homs and west to the Mediterranean, the route followed by the convoys, have improved considerably.

An offensive in the mountainous region along the border with Lebanon has cleared towns, including Nabek and Yabroud, from which attacks on the highway could be launched. The rebel stronghold of Krak des Chevaliers, a medieval castle with a commanding view of the highway, was also recaptured.

Even the stretch of highway through the largely rebel-controlled eastern Ghouta area appears to be less of a battle zone, though shots still ring out and bombed-out buildings and burned car dealerships line the route north from Damascus. Most drivers go fast and hope for the best.

Upon arrival in Latakia, the chemicals are placed on cargo ships for removal, said Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the OPCW.

A number of nations are participating in the complex effort to ship the chemical materials from Latakia for disposal outside Syria. The most hazardous agents are to be neutralized at sea aboard a specially equipped U.S. vessel, the cargo ship Cape Ray.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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