International chemicals watchdog debates Syria weapons plan

International chemicals watchdog debates Syria weapons plan
The aftermath of the chemical attack in August, which prompted international action.

The international chemical weapons watchdog is meeting in the Netherlands to endorse a plan to destroy Syria’s deadly poison gas and nerve agent arsenal, most likely outside the country.

Approval by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons of a destruction plan at talks in The Hague is a crucial step in the international community’s efforts to eliminate President Bashar Assad’s stockpile which is believed to include mustard gas and sarin.

The risky disarmament operation in the midst of a raging civil war started more than a month ago with inspections and the smashing of machinery used to mix chemicals and fill empty munitions, thereby ending the regime’s capability to make new weapons.

Syria has proposed moving the stockpile out of the country for destruction and the OPCW said that was the “most viable” option.

The mission stems from a deadly attack on August 21 on opposition-held suburbs of the capital, Damascus, in which the United Nations determined the nerve agent sarin was used. Hundreds of people were killed. The US and Western allies accuse Syria’s government of being responsible, while Assad’s regime blames the rebels.

The Obama administration threatened to launch punitive missile strikes against Syria, prompting frantic diplomatic efforts to forestall an attack. Those efforts concluded with September’s unanimous US Security Council resolution endorsing the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons, a process that began last month.

Since then, international inspectors have visited 22 of 23 chemical weapons sites declared by Syria and confirmed that Syria met a November 1 deadline to destroy or “render inoperable” all chemical weapon production facilities.

Syria also submitted a confidential plan for the destruction of its stockpile, which has to be endorsed by the OPCW’s Executive Council today.

In a clear indication that the plan will involve transferring the chemical weapons out of Syria, Norway’s Foreign Minister said yesterday that his country would send a civilian cargo ship and a navy frigate to Syria to pick up the stockpiles and carry them elsewhere for destruction.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Borge Brende described destroying Assad’s arsenal as a Norwegian obligation. Fifty servicemen usually accompany a Norwegian frigate and Mr Brende acknowledged the operation is “not risk-free”.

Exactly where the weapons will be taken remains unclear, but Albania, which successfully destroyed its own poison gas arsenal, is being tipped as a candidate, triggering protests there.

Syria’s conflict has killed more than 120,000 people in the past two and a half years, according to activists, and displaced millions more.

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