GENEVA — Syria submitted a formal declaration of its chemical weapons program and plans for destroying its arsenal three days ahead of the deadline, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Sunday.
The organization, charged with monitoring and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons program, said that it received the Syrian submission Thursday and that its executive council would consider the declaration’s “general plan of destruction” by Nov. 15.
It was not immediately clear, however, whether the declaration’s listing of Syria’s chemical weapons sites was exhaustive, an important test of President Bashar Assad’s willingness to cooperate with the program to eliminate his country’s chemical weapons infrastructure and arsenal.
Saying that such declarations are confidential, the chemical weapons agency declined to disclose or discuss the contents of the Syrian document.
US officials said in September that Syria’s chemical weapons program included at least 45 sites. But when Syria submitted a preliminary declaration of its chemical weapons program that month, it declared only 23 sites.
The State Department has never fully explained the discrepancy. Some of the gap, US officials have suggested, may reflect efforts by the Syrians to consolidate their chemical weapons stocks, as well as the haste in which the Assad government compiled its initial list.
But US officials also have suggested that Syria’s preliminary declaration was not complete and stressed the need for the Assad government to do better in the formal declaration.
“It is of the greatest importance that that document be complete,” a senior State Department official said this month.
The United States has a number of ways to make its concerns about Syrian compliance known, including by direct contact with the Syrian officials.
In the meantime, however, the Obama administration is counting on the Russians to use their influence with Assad to persuade him to comply.
The initiative to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program came from the Russians, who were looking for a way to protect the Assad government from a US-led air strike that the White House had threatened after, it said, the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in a suburb of Damascus on Aug. 21.
US and Russian officials forged the details of a disarmament plan in Geneva in September. Later that month, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution that required Syria to give up its arms.
That measure noted that if Syria failed to cooperate, the Security Council could take measures under Chapter 7 of the United Nations charter, the strongest form of a council resolution. Such steps could include economic sanctions or even military action.
Before any action could be taken, the issue would have to return to the Security Council for further deliberations; Russia, like the other permanent members, holds a veto on the council.
Syria’s declaration arrived as the chemical weapons agency, which is based in The Hague, said its inspectors had visited 19 of the 23 chemical weapons sites that Syria initially listed and had completed the destruction of equipment for mixing chemical agents and loading weapons at the sites.
Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the agency, told reporters last week that by Thursday, Syria would “no longer have the capability to produce any more chemical weapons, and it will no longer have any working equipment to mix and to fill chemical weapons agent into munitions.”
Patricia Lewis, research director for international security at Chatham House in London, said in a telephone interview that “the priority for the inspectors was to prevent another mass attack” using chemical weapons.
“They have clearly achieved a large proportion of what they needed to do in that respect,” she said.
The goal of eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal and capabilities by mid-2014 remains a formidable one.
With inspectors moving toward completing the first round of the program, attention is shifting to destroying an arsenal estimated to include 1,000 tons of precursor chemicals and nerve agents.
The United States has proposed shipping part of Syria’s chemical stocks for destruction to other countries and has approached a number of governments.
The complexity of such arrangements became apparent last week, when Norway said it had turned down a US request that it participate, citing “time constraints and external factors, such as capacities, regulatory requirements.”
Norway’s foreign minister, Boerge Brende, said the country lacked the necessary equipment and the mid-2014 deadline was too tight.
The announcement from the Hague chemical weapons group came among renewed fighting in Syria. Al Qaeda-linked rebels battled government troops Sunday for control of the Christian town of Sadad north of Damascus, the Associated Press quoted activists as saying.
The rebels have been trying to seize the town for the past week, and residents in the rebel-held western neighborhoods of Sadad are trapped in homes, said Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights.
The rebels appear to have targeted Sadad because of its strategic location near the main highway north from Damascus rather than because it is inhabited primarily by Christians. But extremists among the rebels are hostile to Syria’s Christian minority, which has largely backed Assad during the conflict.