Middle East

Syria stalls as chemical weapons deadline looms

Investigators take samples of sand near a part of a missile that was suspected of carrying chemical agents, at a site near Damascus in August 2013 Image copyright AP
Image caption Investigators examine the site of the 2013 attack that led to the plan to destroy Syria's chemical arms

The deadline is looming for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to sacrifice his complete chemical arsenal - and it looks increasingly likely he will miss it.

One thousand three hundred tonnes of chemicals are supposed to be shipped out of the country by 5 February, but it is another deadline that will slip by with no significant movement on the Syrian side. According to the US, just a tiny fraction - estimated at less than 5% - has been handed over.

President Assad has been accused of playing a diplomatic poker game, and as the mission nears stalemate, suspicions are growing that the deal was a shrewd ruse designed to buy time and avert military intervention.

When rockets packed with suffocating Sarin nerve agent hit the suburbs of Damascus, footage of children gasping in agony generated international condemnation.

President Barack Obama declared it "an assault on human dignity" and the US began preparing for military action, in response to "the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st Century".

Then as British and American politicians struggled to win over their war-weary electorates, Syria made a swift concession. Despite blaming the rebels for launching the attacks, Mr Assad agreed to sign a Russian-brokered deal to surrender his entire chemical stockpile - and the threat of air strikes disappeared.

Image copyright Lars Hovtun
Image caption Grey skies loom for more than just the container ship Taiko, as the Syria chemical arms deal stalls
Image copyright Lars Hovtun
Image caption It's expensive to keep naval ships like this Danish support vessel, the Esbern Snare, on standby
Image copyright Lars Hovtun
Image caption Keeping watch as chemicals are loaded onto a nearby container ship in Latakia

As the original 31 December deadline for the removal of 630 tonnes of Syria's most toxic chemicals arrived, a BBC team was on board the Norwegian warship that was supposed to escort the chemicals out of the country. But instead, the ship sailed back to Cyprus.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) enforced a strict media blackout, blaming the sensitive nature of the operation. All embedded Western journalists were evicted.

The Scandinavian fleet has since conducted two trips to Latakia.

On 7 January, nine containers, containing 16 tonnes of material, were loaded onto a Danish cargo ship. The Norwegian vessel, Taiko, collected a similar quantity on 27 January.

Syria is believed to possess 1,290 tonnes of chemical agents. If the pace isn't stepped up dramatically, the ships could still be there this time next year.

'Plan B?'

This is the first time the OPCW has operated inside a war zone and the operation is turning out to be more complicated than anticipated.

The Syrian government denies deliberately dragging its feet. Representatives at the OPCW meeting in The Hague last week said the country remained committed to the deal and that the delays were due to genuine security risks posed by the presence of armed opposition groups.

Both things could be true. With no punishment for non-compliance, there may be little incentive for President Assad to divert precious military resources to escort a convoy of chemicals across potentially hazardous terrain.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former British commander who helped to destroy Afghanistan's chemical weapons, believes the OPCW must consider alternative ways to remove President Assad's trump card.

"The situation has changed therefore the plan must be adjusted. The mustard gas, which is the only stuff that's been weaponised can be destroyed inside the country. I conducted a very similar operation, under fire, under the noses of the Taliban.

"We achieved that in a very demanding situation so why on earth are we not considering that in Syria? That would be my Plan B. Otherwise it's doomed to failure," he said.

Image caption With the programme behind schedule, some analysts are suggesting destroying chemicals in situ, rather than transport them large distances across the Mediterranean
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The MV Cape Ray was fitted out in Portsmouth, Virginia
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hydrolysis units to neutralise the chemical agents, being installed on the US ship MV Cape Ray

It costs half a million US dollars a week to keep the Norwegian warship waiting in the Mediterranean Sea. Countries like Norway, the United States and the UK, along with many others, have invested substantial amounts of funding and faith in this mission.

But there are indications that international patience is running out.

At peace talks in Switzerland, the US Secretary of State John Kerry said the option of using military force was still "fully on the table… with respect to the compliance issue of the chemical weapons, and depending on what happens in the future. The president never takes any option off the table."

A few days later, the US intelligence chief James Clapper submitted a report to the Senate Intelligence Committee, warning that Syria's biological weapons programme may be at a more advanced stage than first thought and that President Assad, "might be capable of limited agent production".

The OPCW says its self-imposed deadlines were soft target dates and is confident the ultimate deadline for the complete destruction of Syria's chemical stockpile by 30 June 2014 is still "completely realistic". In a statement released last week, the director general urged the Syrian government to "accelerate" the removal process.

Six months ago, President Obama asked "What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?"

Initially the chemical deal was promoted as a possible catalyst for peace. Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme, British Foreign Secretary William Hague once described it as "shining a light" in a dark place.

But the delays are triggering divisions, and human rights groups fear the focus on chemical arms is distracting attention from atrocities using conventional weapons.

With no end to the horrors in Syria, many are beginning to wonder how much longer those who initially had so much hope in the chemical deal, will be prepared to wait for President Assad to deliver on his promises?