Friday, November 1, 2013

Syria Destroys Chemical Sites, Inspectors Say

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 al-Assad has offered unexpectedly robust cooperation, at least so far, with a Russian-United States accord to dismantle his arsenal.

Elimination of Mr. 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 and carved up control of the country.

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 United States officials say was an Israeli strike on a Syrian Army base late Wednesday night, Syria has so far met all of its commitments and deadlines.

By doing so, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

"They want to tell you, 'It's not because you put a deadline — when we say something, we do it before the time,' " a pro-government Syrian journalist, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said of Syrian officials. "The main problem with the West, until now it never understood how the Syrian regime works. Whenever you threaten them you won't get anything."

Mr. Assad's opponents have bitterly denounced the accord as a distraction, and they were dismayed that the chemical weapons attack in August that American officials say killed 1,400 men, women and children near Damascus led not to American military intervention, as President Obama initially threatened, but to an agreement that allows Mr. Assad's supporters to portray him as a statesman.

The deal also created a de facto expectation that Mr. 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 Mr. 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 on 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 of Friday.

The organization said that its inspectors and United Nations 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.

"The joint mission is now satisfied that it has verified — and seen destroyed — all of Syria's declared critical production and mixing/filling equipment," the weapons organization's statement said. "Given the progress made, no further inspection activities are currently planned."

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