The world’s chemical watchdog on Friday adopted a final roadmap for ridding Syria of its arsenal by mid-2014, only reaching agreement hours before a deadline expired.
“The plan is adopted,” Christian Chartier, a spokesman for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), told AFP after a meeting of its 41-member Executive Council in The Hague.
Friday was the deadline for the OPCW to agree “destruction milestones” for the more than 1,000 tonnes of dangerous chemicals in Syria, according to the terms of a US-Russian deal that headed off US military strikes on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The talks at OPCW headquarters in The Hague broke off twice before agreement was reached around 2000 GMT, as delegates thrashed out the final draft.
Under the deal, Syria’s weapons will be taken out of the war-ravaged country, where an estimated 120,000 people have been killed during uprising, to ensure their destruction in the “safest and soonest manner”, the OPCW said in a statement.
“The plan provides a clear roadmap. It sets ambitious milestones to be met by the government of Syria,” OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu said in a statement.
“Continuing international support and assistance for this endeavour will remain crucial,” Uzumcu said.
Under the plan, almost all of Syria’s chemicals and precursors, except for isopropanol which can be used to make sarin nerve gas, must be removed from the country by February 5, 2014.
The “most critical” chemicals must be removed by the end of the year, the OPCW said.
Declared chemical weapons facilities will be destroyed between December 15 and March 15, 2014, “according to a risk-based criterion”, the watchdog said.
Likewise, “priority” chemicals will be destroyed outside of Syria by April 2014, and all other chemicals by June 30, 2014.
Sigrid Kaag, who is coordinating the joint UN-OPCW mission in Syria, told the meeting: “I am currently reaching out to others to consider joining this international effort”.
Despite a US request of its staunch ally, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said earlier that he would not help destroy Syria’s arsenal in his country after a string of domestic protests against the move.
“It is impossible for Albania to take part in such an operation... as it has no capacity” to carry out such a task, Rama told reporters.
His statement was broadcast live on giant television screens on Tirana’s main square, where thousands of demonstrators erupted in cries of joy.
With the fractured Syrian opposition suffering a string of recent setbacks, including five rebel commanders killed since Thursday, reports said a long-delayed peace conference could be held in Geneva on December 12.
The international community has been trying for months to convene a peace conference dubbed “Geneva II”. But proposed dates have come and gone with no progress.
The regime has said it is willing to attend, provided Assad’s departure is not on the table. The opposition, though, insists on Assad’s departure and exclusion from the transition process.
The focus of Syria’s chemical disarmament is increasingly on how the world can help, and it was not immediately clear which country could receive and destroy the lethal chemicals and precursors after Tirana’s refusal.
Norway has also said no, citing time constraints and inexperience, while France and Belgium are also believed to have been asked for possible help by Washington.
Norway and Denmark have said they would provide ships to help take the chemicals out of Syria, with Denmark saying it would also provide a personal protection team for international inspectors.
Despite general agreement on the aim of helping Syria get rid of its chemical weapons, contentious points remain.
They include the supply of so-called “dual purpose” equipment to help with the transport of the chemicals, and where they will be taken to for destruction.
A team of UN-OPCW inspectors has been on the ground since October checking Syria’s weapons and facilities, but security remains a concern.
OPCW head Uzumcu wrote to Kaag on November 11 laying out a tentative plan for the destruction, a diplomatic source told AFP, with all chemicals leaving Syria via Latakia, Syria’s main port on the Mediterranean.
Uzumcu said that the Syrians had requested equipment to help the process, including armoured 4x4 vehicles and electronic counter measure (ECM) equipment.
Western nations refuse to supply them as they could be used against rebels. Syria’s ally Russia could, however, supply such dual-purpose equipment.
The joint Russian-US Syrian chemical weapons disarmament plan was endorsed by the UN Security Council in September to head off military strikes in retaliation for the regime’s alleged use of the weapons against its own people after a chemical attack against a Damascus suburb in August left hundreds dead.