WASHINGTON — A senior Obama administration official said Friday that the United States was encouraged by the initial inventory that the Syrian government had submitted of its chemical weapons arsenal.
“We were pleasantly surprised by the completeness of their declaration,” said the official, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “It was better than expected,” he added.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the watchdog group known as the OPCW that oversees the international agreement banning poison gas, said Friday that Syria had provided “an initial declaration” of its chemical weapons program.
The submission met the first deadline for Syrian compliance that was set down by the framework agreement that the United States and Russia concluded in Geneva last weekend.
US, British, Chinese, French, and Russian diplomats are debating the terms of a UN Security Council resolution that would enforce the agreement. Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that it was essential for the council to adopt the resolution next week.
Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the OPCW, said the organization’s technical experts were studying the Syrian weapons declaration but would not give additional details.
The declaration’s completeness is an early test of President Bashar Assad’s commitment to relinquish Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
The United States and Russia agreed in Geneva that Syria has about 1,000 tons of precursor chemicals and chemical agents, including sulfur mustard and sarin gas.
The fact that Russia, which has been one of the principal supporters of the Assad government, reached a consensus with the United States on the size of the arsenal after receiving an intelligence briefing by US experts suggested that the Syrian government would eventually declare a similar figure.
Still, US officials had been waiting to see whether the Syrian declaration would be submitted within a week of the framework agreement, as the accord requires, and whether it would be comprehensive.
Under the framework agreement, the declaration is to detail types and quantities of all its chemical agents, munitions, and precursor chemicals as well as all laboratories for developing the agents and facilities for producing weapons.
Marie Harf, the deputy State Department spokeswoman, would not characterize the Syrian declaration, saying only that the United States would make “a careful and thorough review of the initial document.”
The OPCW does not publicly disclose the contents of declarations. But its assessment of the accuracy and thoroughness of Syria’s statement will be crucial in determining how inspectors can best proceed with the agreement’s next stage, which includes far more formidable tests of the Assad government’s cooperation.
By November, international monitors are to inspect all of Syria’s declared sites, and equipment to produce and mix chemical weapons is to be destroyed. Syria’s entire arsenal is to be eliminated by the middle of 2014, although Assad has said that process could take a year.
Under the framework agreement, the United States and Russia are to outline procedures for quickly eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons and verifying that the country is not hiding any weapons or stocks. A US and Russian draft of those procedures is subject to endorsement by the OPCW executive council, followed by codification in the Security Council resolution mandating elimination of Syria’s chemical arsenal.
The executive council was to have met this weekend but instead will likely convene toward the middle or end of next week, said Luhan, who gave no reason for the delay.
Also Friday, Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group warned that the expanding influence of Al Qaeda-linked militants in the rebel movement is undermining its struggle for a free Syria.
The warning came as a cease-fire ended fighting near the Turkish border between the mainstream rebels and fighters belonging to the Al Qaeda offshoot known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. During the battle, the jihadis overran the town of Azaz.
The infighting was some of the worst in recent months between forces seeking to bring down Assad, and it threatened to further fragment an opposition movement outgunned by the regime.Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.