WASHINGTON -- The United States on Thursday accused Syria of deliberately delaying the surrender of its chemical weapons stockpiles and jeopardizing a tightly timed and costly international removal and destruction operation that narrowly averted U.S. airstrikes last year.
It was the first formal accusation that Syria was not cooperating with the terms of its disarmament after months in which international diplomats and chemical weapons experts marveled at the speed with which the process was being carried out. The public denunciation, however, closely tracked concerns that independent experts have expressed privately in recent weeks about the operation's pace.
The failure of Syria to meet the terms of the agreement would pose a potentially embarrassing problem for the Obama administration and Russia, which sponsored the removal effort as a way to head off U.S. military action in response to an Aug. 21 sarin gas attack near Damascus widely blamed on President Bashar Assad's government.
A senior State Department official said that while the U.S. threat of force remains in place, "it's also fair to say we're not looking to rush into an open-ended conflict in Syria." The official requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.
Most chemical weapons experts agree that Syria's ability to manufacture and deploy the banned weapons was destroyed last year. But subsequent requirements to remove and neutralize Syria's stockpile of chemicals used to make the weapons "has seriously languished and stalled," Robert Mikulak, head of the U.S. delegation to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, told the OPCW executive council in the Dutch city of The Hague.
Syria has sent to its main port in Latakia for shipment abroad only 4 percent of the most critical components of the 1,433 tons of chemical weapons it declared to the OPCW and the United Nations, Mr. Mikulak said, according to a transcript of his remarks the State Department distributed. Moreover, he said, Syria didn't begin shipping the substances to the Mediterranean coast until after Dec. 31, the deadline by which all of Syria's most critical chemical weapons components were to have been removed.
"Today, we are one month past the 31 December completion date set by the [OPCW executive] council. Almost none of the Priority One chemicals have been removed, and the Syrian government will not commit to a specific schedule for removal," said Mr. Mikulak, adding that a Feb. 5 deadline for shipping out the next category of substances won't be met either.
He rejected Syria's assertions that the delays are because of security problems and a need for donations of additional equipment, including armored jackets for shipping containers and explosives detectors. "These demands are without merit and display a 'bargaining mentality,' rather than a security mentality," said Mr. Mikulak, an apparent reference to concerns that Syria is tying the removal operation's pace to progress in Geneva peace talks with U.S.-backed moderate opposition factions.
"Syria's requests for equipment and open-ended delaying of the removal operation could ultimately jeopardize the carefully timed and coordinated multi-state removal and destruction effort," Mr. Mikulak said. "The international community is ready to go, and the international operation to remove the chemicals is fully in place and ready to proceed once Syria fulfills its obligation to transport the chemicals to Latakia."
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday that he had called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shogun, and asked him to "do what he could to influence the Syrian government to comply with the agreement that has been made." During a visit to Poland, Mr. Hagel said, "The United States is concerned that the Syrian government is behind in delivering these chemical weapons precursor materials on time."
The operation's delay could prove embarrassing for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is one of Assad's main backers in the civil war, and who put his personal prestige behind the deal by first proposing it formally.
It also could create a new diplomatic headache for Mr. Obama, who cited the removal operation as a diplomatic achievement in his State of the Union address Tuesday. "American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria's chemical weapons are being eliminated," he told the nation.
Mr. Obama has sought to limit U.S. involvement in the civil war pitting Assad's government against mostly Islamist rebels dominated by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority. But he hasn't taken off the table his threat to launch airstrikes if Assad reneges on his agreement to surrender all of his chemical weapons.
An estimated 130,000 people have been killed and 8 million driven from their homes in the nearly three years of war, which began in March 2011 as demonstrations against some 40 years of Assad family rule.
Under the agreement being overseen by the OPCW and the United Nations, Syria must transport the chemical components of its stockpiles of sarin, VX and other nerve agents to Latakia, where they are to be shipped to Italy. From there, some are to be taken for disposal at sea by a U.S. military ship, while the rest are to go to commercial disposal facilities in Europe.