BEIRUT – U.S. officials seldom conceal their contempt for Syrian President Bashar Assad, but Secretary of State John F. Kerry credited Assad’s government on Saturday with a not-insignificant achievement: Safeguarding the nation’s chemical armory amid a raging civil war.
That fact, Kerry stressed, helped make possible an “ambitious” U.S.-Russian plan to eliminate Syria’s substantial chemical weapons store.
“One of the reasons that we believe that this is achievable is because the Assad regime has taken extraordinary pains in order to keep control of these weapons,” Kerry told reporters Saturday in Geneva after outlining the U.S.-Russian initiative. “They have moved them, and we know they’ve moved them. We’ve seen them move them. We watched this. And so we know they’ve continued to always move them to a place of more control.”
That fact, Kerry stressed, would help answer one of the key outstanding questions: How to gather and destroy a vast chemical arsenal, even as hostilities reign.
“This is sort of the silver lining, if you will,” Kerry said, adding that “if the Assad regime is prepared to live up to its word, we should not have a problem achieving access to their sites.”
According to the plan’s bold timetable, inspectors should be entering Syria by November and the nation’s chemical stockpile should be destroyed by mid-2014. But many are skeptical.
There are about 45 sites in Syria associated with the nation’s chemical weapons program, and about half have significant amounts of material, a U.S. official told reporters Saturday in Geneva. Reports have indicated that some chemical stockpiles are situated around Damascus, the capital, while others may be found to the north, in Homs, Hama and Aleppo provinces, and to the west in coastal Latakia.
Still, even with the materials concentrated in government-held zones, access will be problematic. No long-distance road in Syria is completely safe. And Syria’s armed rebels, who had been hoping for U.S. airstrikes that would degrade Assad’s forces, have generally rejected the U.S.-Russian deal, raising the possibility that chemical weapons inspection personnel could face attacks from opposition gunmen.
These days, the central core of Damascus is under extremely tight security, with military checkpoints situated every few blocks. Still, mortar shells launched from rebel-held suburbs regularly explode inside the city limits, killing civilians. Car bomb attacks are a regular threat.
Chemical weapons depots are unlikely to be in the densely populated center. Such facilities are more likely to be situated in the capital’s rambling outskirts, where vulnerability to rebel attack is much greater.
Previous U.N. inspection teams have entered Syria in vehicular convoys from neighboring Lebanon. The hourlong drive from the border along the heavily guarded highway to Damascus is relatively secure, with numerous military checkpoints. But rebel forces are nearby and roadside ambushes are common these days in Syria. Government checkpoints are frequent targets of rebel attacks.
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