Syria 'submits chemical weapons data' to Hague watchdog

The BBC's Paul Adams explains the challenges of removing Syria's chemical weapons

Syria has begun sending details of its chemical weapons as part of a US-Russia brokered deal to make them safe, the chemical arms watchdog has said.

The Hague-based OPCW added that it expected more details from Syria in the coming days and had postponed a meeting planned for Sunday.

Syria was given a Saturday deadline to give a full list of its chemical arms.

The US had threatened military action over a chemical attack in Damascus which the UN says was a war crime.

The US, UK and France have accused Syrian government forces of carrying out the 21 August attack, in the Ghouta district, but President Bashar al-Assad has blamed rebel groups.

Analysis

The agreement reached last Saturday in Geneva set some very ambitious deadlines. Syria was given just a week to hand over "a comprehensive listing" to the OPCW, including names and quantities of chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, as well as where and how Syria's chemical weapons are developed, produced and stored.

Syria's initial submission to the OPCW clearly doesn't meet this stringent standard, but this may not matter. Together with Syria's quick ratification of the OPCW charter, last weekend, it's an indication that the Assad regime is prepared to engage with this process, even if it would prefer to do so at its own pace.

It's still early days, but the rest of the Geneva agreement's demanding timetable could be hard to meet. It would be surprising if the Assad regime did not play for time to a certain extent. It may not feel it can use its chemical weapons, but that doesn't mean that they're not still valuable.

As long as the international community feels that Syria is co-operating, however reluctantly, the regime knows it's very unlikely to be bombed.

Separately, two Syrian rebel groups have agreed a ceasefire in the northern town of Azaz after two days of fighting that raised fears of a war within a war.

Meeting postponed

Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is responsible for policing the treaty outlawing chemical arms, said Syria's submission was an "initial declaration".

Mr Luhan said it was now being examined by the organisation's technical secretariat but he declined to say what was in it.

A UN diplomat confirmed to Reuters that details had been submitted, adding: "It's quite long... and being translated."

The US-Russia-brokered deal aims to have inspectors on the ground in Syria in November, when they will make an initial assessment and oversee the destruction of certain equipment.

The destruction of all of Syria's chemical weapons would then be completed by mid-2014.

The core members of the OPCW were expected to vote on the timetable next week.

However, the OPCW said in a statement on Friday that a meeting of its executive council scheduled for Sunday had been postponed, without giving a reason.

"We will announce the new date and time... as soon as possible," it said.

Syria's chemical weapons

  • CIA believes Syria's arsenal can be "delivered by aircraft, ballistic missile, and artillery rockets"
  • Syria believed to possess mustard gas, sarin, and tried to develop VX gas
  • Syria has agreed to join Chemical Weapons Convention; it signed Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in 1972 but never ratified it

Sources: CSIS, RUSI

Once the OPCW agrees to the plan, the UN Security Council will seek to endorse it.

The five permanent members are still discussing the wording of a resolution, with Russia opposing threats of force against Syria.

The White House said on Friday that the threat of military action remained on the table if Syria broke the agreement.

On Monday, the UN confirmed in a report that the nerve agent sarin had been used in a rocket attack in Ghouta, although it did not apportion blame.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the mission was unable to verify the number of casualties, but referred to the "terrible loss of life on 21 August".

France, the UK and US insist the report clearly backs their stance that only government forces were capable of carrying out the attack.

Syria's ally, Russia, rejected the argument, saying it had "serious grounds" to believe the attack had been a provocation by rebel forces.

Film dispute

Separately on Friday, the two rebel groups - the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), linked to al-Qaeda, and the larger Western-backed Free Syrian Army - agreed a truce in Azaz, near the Turkish border.

Paul Wood reports from Syria's border with Turkey: ''The jihadis influence... continues to spread''

Isis had seized the northern town from the FSA on Wednesday.

Start Quote

What threatened to be an all-out conflict between jihadis and other rebels in the Free Syrian Army has been averted - for the time being”

End Quote

The fighting began when a wounded rebel - either from Isis or from an allied group, al-Muhajireen - was taken to a field clinic and, while there, he was filmed as part of a fundraising exercise.

The wounded fighter demanded the film, and called on friends to come to his aid, prompting a full-scale attack.

The BBC's Paul Wood, on the border, says that under the ceasefire deal the two rebel sides have agreed to exchange prisoners and hand back property.

More than 100,000 people have died since the uprising against President Assad began in 2011.

Millions of Syrians have fled the country, mostly to neighbouring nations, and millions more have been internally displaced.

ISIS strongholds in rebel-held and contested areas
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