WASHINGTON – The agency in charge of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons says it is on track to eliminate the entire stockpile next year, but for one hitch: It hasn’t yet found a place to do the actual destruction.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons approved a plan Friday for removing hundreds of tons of toxins from Syria by early February. But within hours of the vote, the country that was expected to accept the chemicals backed off.
The government of Albania, which has a chemical-weapons destruction facility that was built in part with U.S. funds, announced Friday that it could not accept the Syrian chemicals.
Bowing to pressure from demonstrators who had staged several days of protests in the tiny Balkan country of 2.8 million, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said in a televised speech, “It is impossible for Albania to get involved in this operation.”
Albania’s rejection throws a wrench into what had been a largely trouble-free operation to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal. Last month, OPCW officials confirmed that they had inspected all but one of Syria’s declared chemical weapons sites, overseeing the destruction of essential equipment used to fill warheads and rockets with sarin and other deadly nerve agents.
The destruction of the equipment virtually eliminated Syria’s capacity to launch a large-scale chemical attack like its alleged Aug. 21 attack that killed more than 1,000 Syrian civilians in two Damascus suburbs. The Hague-based OPCW also has been systematically destroying hundreds of empty warheads and rockets designed to carry poison gas.
The agency still faced formidable challenges in destroying a small number of filled chemical munitions and tons of chemical precursors stored in bulk at Syrian military bases. The OPCW’s plan, developed with help from Russia and the United States, called for moving the liquid chemicals by ship to a third country where they could be safely neutralized.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said Albania’s decision should not affect the OPCW’s ability to destroy the chemicals on time. “Several countries are seriously considering and have seriously considered hosting the destruction efforts,” she said. She did not elaborate.
Norway had previously declined to accept the Syrian chemicals.
Syria agreed to surrender its chemical arsenal — considered to be one of the world’s largest — under a Russia-brokered deal after the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama threatened a military strike to punish Damascus for what it said was its role in the Aug. 21 chemical attack.