WASHINGTON — The White House tried to hold on to hope this week as its Syrian disarmament strategy falls apart, with Secretary of State John Kerry admitting Friday that the U.S. is leaning on Russia to urge Bashar al-Assad to come into compliance with Washington’s “red line” deal.
Less than 5 percent of the priority 1 chemical weapons in Assad’s stockpile, including agents like the nerve gas sarin, have been removed from the country and the regime appears to be making no effort to liquidate the rest as agreed.
That just includes chemical agents that the U.S. knows about, and wouldn’t include stockpiles that may have been scuttled off to Hezbollah or Iran for safekeeping as Assad negotiated a deal to avoid U.S. “red line” strikes.
“The international community is poised and ready to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons as soon as the chemicals have reached the Syrian Port of Latakia. It is the Assad regime’s responsibility to transport the chemicals to Latakia safely to facilitate their removal. And we expect them to meet their obligation to do so,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
“We all know the Syrian regime has the capability to move these weapons. We know that because they’ve been moved multiple times before, during the conflict. …So we’re going to continue to work with our partners on this to keep up the pressure on the Assad regime and to support the OPCW-U.N. joint mission’s operations.”
Carney quoted UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as saying, “The Syrian Arab Republic has sufficient material and equipment necessary to carry out multiple ground movements to ensure the expeditious removal of chemical weapons material, and that it is imperative that Syria intensifies its efforts to expedite in-country movements of chemical weapons and continues to meet its obligations.”
When asked what happens if Assad doesn’t follow through, Carney wouldn’t wade into ultimatum territory.
“Well, again, they have obligation here. They have committed to doing this. This is a regime that refused to acknowledge that it possessed chemical weapons until a very short time ago and has now committed to not only acknowledging that it possesses the weapons, but moving them so they can be destroyed,” he said. “And the United States and our partners in this effort will insist that Syria meet its commitments.”
A senior administration official on a State Department conference call with reporters Friday said he wasn’t in the room with U.S. and Syrian negotiators at peace talks this past week, but “I have never heard that the chemical weapons issues came up in any serious way during this week of talks here in Geneva.”
“I don’t know that the chemical weapons issue darkened the talks here, but there is a credibility issue for the Syrian government, whether it be with respect to chemical weapons, and whether or not it would implement any deal that was ever reached here in Geneva, if we do get to a deal,” the official said.
“Right now we’re trying to see if the Syrian government will actually lock on and, through serious messages from the international community, begin to move the material. But of course, there is a Security Council resolution and there are references in that resolution to what would happen were the Syrian government not to comply with the Security Council resolutions requirements. So that resolution is in place. And ultimately if we have to go down that route, we’ll go down that route.”
After landing in Berlin to meet with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Kerry confirmed that “Bashar al-Assad is not, in our judgment, fully in compliance because of the timing and the delays that have taken place contrary to the OPCW’s judgment that this could move faster.”
“Let me make it clear that Bashar al-Assad needs to understand that he agreed to an international United Nations Security Council Resolution which has reinforced a requirement that he remove all of those weapons and that he do so in a specific period of time. That was passed by unanimity within the United Nations Security Council,” Kerry continued. “Russia is a partner in this effort. And Russia obviously plays a critical role in helping the Syrians to understand their obligation of compliance.”
Talking tougher than the White House, he went on to say that “no option has been taken off the table.”
“We made that clear at the time of the passage of the UN resolution, and I restate that now today. We want the Syrian regime to live up to its obligations. And it is critical that very rapidly all of those chemical weapons be moved from once – from their 12 or so sites to the one site in the port and be prepared for shipment out of Syria all together,” said Kerry. “Every indication we have is there is no legitimate reason that that is not happening now. And therefore we call on Bashar al-Assad to live up to his obligations or we will join together with our friends and talk about which, if any, of the options we deem necessary at this point to proceed forward.”
Russia brushed off the pressure, though, claiming that Syria can still meet a June 30 deadline to destroy all of its chemical weapons stockpile.
Mikhail Ulyanov, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s security and disarmament department, told Interfax that Assad was receiving “insufficient material and technical support from the international community” but the deadline still “seems completely realistic.”
The United Nations has stopped updating the death toll in Syria, which last July stood at more than 100,000 people.
This month, tens of thousands images of Syrian prisoners tortured and killed in Assad’s custody over the past two years were smuggled out of the country by a military police photographer tasked with recording the deaths. The gruesome images of the emaciated bodies bearing signs of extreme torture are expected to eventually be used in a prosecution of Assad on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The mother of a British doctor who was tortured and killed last month in one of Assad’s prisons protested outside the Geneva II talks, demanding to speak to Syrian regime officials about the circumstances of her son’s death.
“Yes, we killed your son,” Fatima Khan said she was told by aide to Syria’s foreign minister. She was also told that entering the country without a proper visa, even to help treat injured civilians, was a “killing offense.”