Seeking to mollify international officials impatient with Syria for missing deadlines to destroy its chemical weapons, Russia said Tuesday that the Syrian government plans to send a large shipment out of the country this month and to export its entire stockpile by March 1.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, who conveyed the new pledges, also defended the Syrian government’s explanations for the missed deadlines, arguing that security dangers posed by the Syrian civil war had created enormous problems in transporting the chemicals to the port of Latakia, where an international flotilla awaits them.
“There really are difficulties linked to the need to provide security for this operation,” Gatilov said in an interview with the official RIA news agency.
Gatilov’s remarks appeared to be in response to the exasperation expressed last week by the United States over Syria’s slow pace in exporting about 1,200 tons of chemical material, half of it considered especially dangerous. US officials had asked Russia to use its influence with President Bashar Assad of Syria to compel him to fulfill his pledges.
Assad promised in September, when Syria agreed to join the global treaty that bans the production and use of chemical weapons, that his government would destroy the munitions. Despite a negotiated timetable, Syria missed a Dec. 31 deadline to export the most dangerous chemicals and will miss a second deadline Wednesday to export all the chemicals. Diplomats say that only two small shipments, 4 percent of the total, have been removed from the country.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a group based in The Hague that is collaborating with the United Nations to oversee the destruction of the Syrian stockpile, added its voice to the criticism Friday, when Ahmet Uzumcu, its director general, said, “The need for the process to pick up pace is obvious.”
The group cautiously welcomed Gatilov’s assertions, a response that appeared to reflect a wait-and-see attitude. “The OPCW looks forward to receiving such a plan from the Syrian authorities and will have something to say at that time,” Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the organization, said in an e-mail.
After decades of denying that it even possessed chemical weapons, the Syrian government reversed itself after a chemical attack Aug. 21 that created a global uproar, including from Assad’s principal allies, Russia and Iran. The government and the opposition seeking to topple it have blamed each other for the attack.
Under a Russian-American agreement that averted a US military strike on Syria, Assad promised to destroy the entire arsenal by June 30.
Russia has been a major participant in the effort to export the chemicals, providing armored vehicles for the overland transport convoys and naval escorts to vessels supplied by Denmark and Norway to carry the chemicals from Syria. Under the agreement, the vessels are to transfer the chemicals at the Italian port of Gioia Tauro to a US ship, the Cape Ray, which is equipped with technology to render the stockpile harmless.
Meanwhile, Syrian forces dropped a crude bomb on a mosque that was being used as a school in a rebel-held neighborhood of a key northern city on Tuesday, killing at least 11 people, including children, activists said.
The bombing — one of at least seven around Aleppo on Tuesday — came amid an intensified campaign by Assad’s government to take back parts of the city that were seized by rebels in mid-2012.
Assad’s troops have been pounding opposition areas of the divided city of Aleppo since mid-December, intensifying their efforts to gain full control of what is Syria’s largest city.