The last of Syria’s declared chemical weapons material was loaded onto a Danish vessel Monday for future destruction, marking a “major landmark” in the effort to do away with the nation’s toxic arsenal, an international oversight agency said.
The action would appear to signal an end the most difficult and controversial stage of an ambitious program to eliminate Syria’s once-imposing chemical weapons program.
The government of President Bashar Assad agreed to the destruction of its toxic arsenal last year in a deal brokered by the United States and Russia that averted threatened U.S. airstrikes on Syria for its alleged use of the nerve agent sarin outside Damascus on Aug. 21. Syria denied using poison gas on the battlefield in its civil war but still acceded to an international plan to destroy its stockpiles.
A United Nations investigation found that sarin had been used but did not conclude which side in the conflict was responsible.
Many experts were skeptical that the ambitious effort to destroy the Syrian arsenal could be completed in less than a year, the time frame outlined in a United Nations-backed destruction plan. That the process unfolded as Syria was engulfed in a war greatly complicated matters.
Syrian authorities had to transport hazardous chemicals through roads subject to attack from rebels. Russia lent its ally, Syria, armored vehicles and other assistance to help with the task.
“Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict,” Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said in a statement issued at the group’s headquarters in The Hague. “And this has been accomplished within very demanding and tight time frames.”
It was the OPCW that made the announcement confirming that the last consignment of Syrian chemical weapons material was loaded Monday onto the Danish vessel Ark Futura for shipment out of the country.
Syria will miss a June 30 deadline for complete destruction of its chemical weapons materials -- about 1,300 tons of substances including mustard gas and precursor chemicals for producing sarin and other agents. As of mid-June, 8% of the toxic arsenal still had not been removed from the country. That final batch was put on the ship Monday, authorities said.
Assad's government blamed the delays on rebel attacks and other war-related factors, including opposition shelling of the port of Latakia, from where the chemicals were put on ships for transport abroad. The United States and its allies, who are backing rebels seeking to overthrow Assad, accused Damascus of foot-dragging and deliberately slowing the process.
The latest shipment of chemicals is to be sent for destruction aboard a specially rigged U.S. vessel, the Cap Ray, and at commercial facilities in Europe and the United States.
Some skeptics have alleged that Syria may have failed to declare some part of its arsenal. The Syrian government has denied holding back any chemical weapons materials. The OPCW has noted that Syria’s declared stockpiles were in line with outside estimates of the size of the nation's chemical weapons program.
Recently, the Syrian government and the armed opposition have exchanged allegations that chlorine gas, a common industrial chemical used on the battlefield in World War I, has been deployed in Syria. Chlorine is not considered a chemical weapon but international law bans the use of any toxic material on the battlefield.
The OPCW sent a team to Syria and found evidence that “irritating agents” such as chlorine may have been used there. However, the organization did not indicate who may have been responsible.
The group’s investigation was hampered by an attack on an OPCW convoy in Syria. Each side in the conflict blamed the other for the attack on the convoy.
Follow news out of the Middle East with Patrick J. McDonnell on Twitter at @mcdneville