Plan to destroy Syrian toxins advances; air assault pummels Aleppo

The Washington Post, AP

The organization overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons said Wednesday that it is on track to remove the most dangerous toxins from Syrian soil early in the new year, despite struggles in finding countries willing to accept them.

Ahmet Uzumcu, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said the group has finalized plans for destroying the chemicals at sea, with the assistance of the United States and other countries.

The plan envisions a complex operation that would quickly remove an estimated 1,000 metric tons of toxic liquids from Syria and then transfer them to a U.S. vessel equipped with machines than will convert them into less toxic compounds.

“The major elements of such a transportation and destruction plan are in place,” Uzumcu told a meeting of OPCW officials at the group’s headquarters in the Hague.

Uzumcu acknowledged the possibility of further delays to a project that has been plagued by security concerns, bad weather and an inability to find a country willing to host a decontamination facility. “We must, however, remember that the mission in the Syrian Arab republic is making progress against heavy odds,” he said.

While some details of the OPCW’s plan are being kept secret, Uzumcu confirmed that the organization has accepted a U.S. offer to destroy the bulk of Syria’s liquid toxins on a specially modified cargo ship, the MV Cape Ray. Russia has agreed to supply trucks to haul the chemicals to Syria’s Latakia port, where they will be loaded onto Danish and Norwegian ships. Italy has offered the use of one of its ports — not yet identified — for transferring the liquids to Cape Ray, OPCW officials said.

The toxins are to be chemically neutralized on board the U.S. ship in a process that should be completed by late March, the organization said. Syria’s entire arsenal — including a small number of artillery shells and rockets loaded with sarin — is set to be eliminated by June 30.

Independent experts said the process of destroying Syria’s stockpile appears to have regained momentum after suffering a major blow last month, when Albania backed away from a commitment to host the decontamination facility. U.S. and Russian officials who initially brokered the agreement to destroy the arsenal had set ambitious deadlines, due in part to worries that Syria could change its mind, or that weapons would be lost or stolen as fighting spread between government troops and rebel militias.

“The deadlines give the necessary urgency to the undertaking, but ultimately they represent political compromises,” said Jean Pascal Zanders, a Paris-based chemical weapons expert who runs a blog on chemical weapons. In the coming weeks, “some shifts are possible, provided there are objective reasons to justify them,” he said.

Syria agreed to surrender its arsenal of nerve and mustard agents after the Obama administration threatened a military strike over President Bashar Assad’s alleged used of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. More than 1,000 Syrians were killed in August after rockets containing deadly sarin gas landed in villages east of Damascus.

In fresh violence in the northern city of Aleppo, the Syrian government has pummeled opposition-held neighborhoods in a four-day air assault, leveling apartment buildings, flooding hospitals with casualties and killing nearly 200 people.

Rebels say the unusually intense airstrikes have prompted civilians to flee to the countryside and could portend a government ground offensive against the opposition-held half of the city, which has been divided for a year and half by grueling fighting.

The air campaign’s timing — five weeks ahead of an international peace conference — also suggests that Assad could be trying to strengthen his position on the ground while exposing the opposition’s weaknesses before sitting down at the negotiating table.

The stakes are high in the battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a former commercial and industrial hub. For the government, wresting back control of the entire city would deal a devastating blow to the rebels’ morale and throw doubt on the opposition’s long-term hold on the vast territory in northern Syria that it has captured over the past two years.

Since it began on Sunday, the government air assault has hammered more than a dozen neighborhoods in the rebel-held areas of Aleppo. The campaign has killed at least 189 people and wounded 879, the aid organization Doctors Without Borders said in a statement Wednesday.

Many of the air raids have targeted neighborhoods that have seen infighting between moderate rebel factions and extremist al-Qaida-linked opposition groups, said the commander of the moderate Aleppo Swords brigade, who goes by the nom de guerre, Abu Thabet. He declined to give his full name for security reasons.

The airstrikes have overwhelmed Aleppo’s already strapped medical facilities, which are struggling to cope with the influx of casualties and are running out of drugs and medical supplies, Doctors Without Borders said.

The impact has been so devastating, in part, because of the government’s choice of weapon: helicopters that drop so-called barrel bombs containing hundreds of kilograms of explosives and fuel, causing massive damage. Activists have dubbed the bombs “barrels of blood” because of their deadly effect.

The country’s conflict, now in its third year, appears to have escalated in recent weeks as both sides maneuver ahead of next month’s planned peace talks and ignore calls for a ceasefire. The U.S. and Russian-brokered peace conference is scheduled to begin in January in the Swiss city of Montreux.

The conflict has exacted a staggering price on Syria and the region. More than 120,000 people have been killed, and nearly 9 million Syrians have been uprooted from their homes — some 40 percent of the country’s prewar population of 23 million. They include some 2.3 million who have fled to neighboring countries, sparking a region-wide refugee crisis.