BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria's ability to produce chemical weapons has been destroyed and its remaining toxic armaments secured, weapons inspectors said Thursday, as President Bashar Assad has offered unexpectedly robust cooperation, at least so far, with a Russian-U.S. accord to dismantle his arsenal.
Elimination of Assad's manufacturing ability is the most significant milestone yet in a process that still faces a monumental task: destroying the government's 1,290 tons of declared chemical weapons in the midst of a bloody civil war that has killed well over 100,000 people.
Weapons inspectors who have been in the country just one month say that despite battles raging across the country, deep international disagreement over how to stop the war and even what U.S. officials say was an Israeli strike on a Syrian army base late Wednesday, Syria has so far met all of its commitments and deadlines.
By doing so, Assad's government can claim success in what it said would be a key benefit of the accord — seizing a new measure of credibility and portraying itself not as an outlaw regime but as a reliable and legitimate international player. But opponents of Assad, including the rebels, are deeply critical of the deal for that very reason — it has helped buttress his position but done nothing to stop the war.
Assad's opponents have bitterly denounced the accord as a distraction, and they were dismayed that the chemical weapons attack in August that U.S. officials say killed 1,400 men, women and children near Damascus led not to U.S. military intervention, as President Barack Obama initially threatened, but to an agreement that allows Assad's supporters to portray him as a statesman.
The deal also created a de facto expectation that Assad would remain in office at least until mid 2014, when the elimination of the weapons is supposed to be complete under the agreement, critics say. And Syrians — supporters and opponents of the government alike — widely considered chemical weapons a side issue that global leaders were focusing on, rather than finding ways to end the war and its humanitarian disaster.
The government's international opponents emphasized on Thursday that the deal was still incomplete and that they still hold Assad accountable for the suffering of Syrians. The British Foreign Office said in a statement that while the destruction of chemical facilities was "an important first milestone, it brings no relief to the Syrian people," since the government continues to use artillery, air power and "siege tactics" against civilians.
In a statement Thursday, the international chemical weapons watchdog group, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said Syria had disabled all of the chemical weapons production and mixing facilities it declared to inspectors, rendering them inoperable, ahead of the deadline today.
The organization said its inspectors and U.N. officials had visited 39 of the 41 facilities at 21 of the 23 sites that Syria had declared to them. While the two remaining sites — where chemical weapons are developed, stored and tested — were too hazardous to visit because of fighting, chemical-making equipment had been moved to other sites that the inspectors could visit, the statement said.
In Washington, at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, questions were raised about why only 23 sites were mentioned in the statement as opposed to the 45 that U.S. officials had said existed. Thomas Countryman, the State Department's assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation, said the discrepancy might stem from how sites were defined, but that other details were classified and that there would be a subsequent hearing on the matter.
The weapons organization's statements throughout the process have consistently suggested that the Syrian government was putting up no apparent resistance. Some government supporters — and indeed, some rebel fighters — have criticized the deal as giving up weapons that belong to the Syrian people and are needed as a deterrent against Israel, which maintains an undeclared nuclear arsenal.
But Syrian officials said the weapons were of little practical use and that giving them up allowed them to claim new moral standing and draw attention to the push for the elimination of Israel's nuclear weapons.
They have blamed the rebels for the deadly chemical attacks while independent experts analyzing a U.N. report on the attacks have said the evidence points to government culpability and to the weapons having been fired from government bases overlooking Damascus.
Civil war's toll rises to 120,000, group says
A Syrian activist group says more than 120,000 people have been killed since the start of the country's civil war nearly three years ago.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has been tracking the death toll through a network of activists in Syria, said Friday that 120,296 people have died. Of those, it said 61,067 are civilians, including 6,365 children.
It said 29,954 are members of President Bashar Assad's armed forces, 18,678 are pro-government fighters and 187 are Lebanese Hezbollah militants.
Also among the dead it said were 2,202 army defectors and some 5,375 opposition fighters, many of them foreigners.
On July 25, the U.N. estimated 100,000 have died in the conflict since March 2011.
Israeli jets strike missile shipment
Israeli warplanes attacked a shipment of Russian missiles inside a Syrian government stronghold, officials said Thursday, a development that threatened to add another volatile layer to regional tensions from the Syrian civil war.
An Obama administration official confirmed the Israeli airstrike overnight but provided no details. The attack occurred late Wednesday in the Syrian port city of Latakia and the target was Russian-made SA-125 missiles, the Associated Press reported, citing another unnamed security official.
There was no immediate confirmation from Syria.
Since the civil war in Syria began in March 2011, Israel has carefully avoided taking sides, but has struck shipments of missiles inside Syria at least twice this year.
The Syrian military, overstretched by the civil war, has not retaliated, and it was not clear whether the embattled Syrian leader would choose to take action this time.