WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Monday called on Syria to honor promises to surrender its chemical weapons stockpile, a day after international experts acknowledged delays in removing some of the most lethal toxins from the country.
U.S. officials conceded that today's deadline for ridding Syria of hundreds of tons of liquid poisons would not be met, citing stalled progress in transporting the chemicals across war-ravaged countryside to ships that will carry them out of the region. But the officials insisted that the overall effort to destroy President Bashar Assad's chemical arsenal was on track.
"We continue to make progress, which has been the important part," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters. "It was always an ambitious time line, but we are still operating on the June 30th time line for the complete destruction."
The group overseeing the elimination of Syria's stockpile, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons blamed bad weather and security problems for delays in removing liquid chemicals from a dozen storage depots across the country.
Russia has provided Syria with trucks to carry the toxins to Danish and Norwegian ships waiting in the port of Latakia, but as recently as Sunday, Syrian officials had made no effort to load the trucks, according to U.S. officials familiar with the operation.
Harf noted that the Assad regime accepted responsibility for safely transporting the chemicals after agreeing in September to voluntarily surrender its estimated 1,000 metric tons of mustard gas and highly lethal nerve agents. The agreement followed a U.S. threat to launch airstrikes to punish Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians.
"We expect them to meet that obligation. That's the next step in this process," Harf said.
Under a plan approved by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, about 500 metric tons of liquid chemicals are to be shipped out of Syrian waters and transferred to a specially modified U.S. ship, the MV Cape Ray, which has been outfitted with equipment to chemically neutralize the toxins in a procedure that will take place at sea. Pentagon officials say the process poses no significant risk to humans or the environment.