GAZIANTEP, Turkey – The Syrian government has met an international deadline to submit a detailed declaration of its chemical weapons facilities and a proposal to destroy its toxic arsenal, the group overseeing the disarmament process said Sunday.
The determination means that the U.S.- and Russian-crafted plan to do away with Syria’s extensive chemical stockpile is proceeding on pace, even as Syria is convulsed by civil conflict that is now in its third year.
Syria had until Sunday to present its declaration of chemical facilities and the related proposal for destruction to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Hague-based organization supervising the elimination of Syria’s chemical stockpiles. Damascus had already provided an initial inventory of its chemical sites, but the new filing is considered more comprehensive and detailed.
The OPCW said Sunday that Syria had submitted the required documentation. OPCW officials have repeatedly praised the Syrian government for its cooperation and predicted that the deadline would be met.
No details of the Syrian government’s submission were made public. In general, the OPCW said, such declarations “provide the basis on which plans are devised for a systematic, total and verified destruction of declared chemical weapons and production facilities.”
In September, Syria, under pressure from Russia, its close ally, agreed to the destruction of its chemical arsenal, which dates to the 1970s. The chemical munitions were long viewed in Damascus as a strategic deterrence to any attack from neighboring Israel, believed to be the region’s only nuclear-armed state.
This month, Syria formally became the 190th nation to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty banning members from using, producing or stockpiling chemical arms.
Syria’s surprise decision to accept the elimination of its chemical stockpiles helped head off threatened airstrikes by the United States in retaliation for Damascus’ alleged use of poison gas this summer against rebel-held districts.
Many Syrian opposition advocates were disappointed at Washington’s decision not to attack Syria and complained that the chemical pact had thrown a lifeline to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
International inspectors have been in Syria since Oct. 1 in the start of the ambitious, United Nations-backed mission to destroy Syria’s chemical stockpiles by mid-2014.
The OPCW faces a Nov. 1 deadline to neutralize Syria’s ability to produce any more chemical weapons. Inspectors have been working to render inoperable all equipment needed to mix and fill chemical agents into munitions. Officials say they have made considerable progress and expect to meet the deadline.
The undertaking is considered unprecedented because it is being carried out amid a civil war.
Inspectors in Syria have visited 19 of the 23 chemical weapons sites initially identified by Syrian authorities, the international agency says. Several sites yet to be inspected are reported to be near conflict zones and may require limited cease-fires to enable access for technical personnel, according to the OPCW, which was awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize for its disarmament work.
Syria’s plan for destruction will now go before the OPCW’s executive council for consideration, the agency said. The ultimate destruction of the arms is likely to be a complex matter, especially considering the atmosphere of violence prevalent in many areas of Syria.
A considerable amount of equipment – including unarmed missile warheads, bombs, and mixing and filling machines – has already been destroyed, mostly using low-tech equipment such as sledgehammers, chain saws and bulldozers, the OPCW has said. Syrian personnel destroy the equipment under the supervision of international inspectors, experts say.
The more complex task – the destruction of actual toxic agents – lies ahead. Authorities are considering a number of options, including incineration. Whether the material can all be destroyed in Syria remains a major question.
Some experts have suggested that certain agents may have to be moved outside of the country to be eliminated. The ongoing fighting in Syria could complicate efforts to do away with the toxins in Syria. But moving the material along Syria’s often-perilous roads could also be a risk. And finding countries willing to accept toxic substances will pose a challenge.
Last week, Norway rejected a U.S. request to destroy some of the chemical agents on Norwegian soil. Oslo cited legal and technical limitations. Several other nations have reportedly been approached to assist in the destruction process.