WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Thursday slammed Syria for failing to fulfill its pledges to surrender its most dangerous chemical weapons for destruction and voiced concern that the entire project could now be in jeopardy.
In a statement to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Netherlands, U.S. Ambassador Robert P. Mikulak accused Syria of “open-ended delaying” of the disarmament process in an attempt to renegotiate the deal it agreed to last fall.
The effort “has seriously languished and stalled,” Mikulak told the executive council of the group, which is overseeing the initiative with the United Nations. Syria’s “open-ended delaying of the removal operation could ultimately jeopardize the carefully timed and coordinated multistate removal and destruction effort.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, at an appearance in Warsaw, also expressed concern.
“They need to fix this,” he said.
Syrian President Bashar Assad agreed to surrender his chemical arsenal, one of the biggest in the world, to deflect President Obama’s threat to launch punitive missile strikes last summer in response to Syria’s alleged use of deadly nerve agents against civilians in suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
Syria initially appeared to comply with its promises to give up its poison gases, and the White House hailed the deal as a major foreign-policy accomplishment. But veteran arms experts have predicted since the deal was signed in September that Assad would seek to test the world community’s resolve and might try to keep some parts of a huge stockpile.
Under a disarmament plan proposed by the Syrians, Damascus was to deliver 700 tons of its most dangerous chemicals by next Wednesday to the port of Latakia, where the material would be loaded onto ships and destroyed at sea. But officials say it has delivered only about 32 tons, in two shipments on Jan. 7 and Jan. 27.
Syrian authorities contend they need additional equipment to safeguard the chemicals as they are trucked from sites around war-torn Syria to Latakia. Mikulak rejected that claim, saying Syrian forces have moved the materials since the conflict began in 2011 without such equipment.
The Syrian demands “display a bargaining mentality rather than a security mentality,” he said.
He said Syrian authorities have delivered only a small fraction of less dangerous “Priority 2" chemicals for destruction. The entire Priority 2 stockpile is due to be surrendered Feb. 5.
Mikulak also accused Syria of violating its pledge to destroy chemical weapons production facilities. Instead of following through on promises to destroy seven hardened aircraft hangars and five underground facilities, Syria is proposing to make the facilities “inactivated” by welding doors shut and erecting interior obstacles.
That approach is “easily reversible” and falls short of Syria’s commitments, Mikulak said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this week noted Syria’s tardiness and urged it to step up its efforts. But Ban and OPCW officials have so far sought to moderate their criticism of Assad in hopes that they might win Syria’s compliance without a fight.