Saturday

21st Sep 2019

EU offers to help destroy Syria weapons

  • OPCW staff on a training exercise (Photo: opcw.org)

EU countries have offered to help destroy Syria's chemical weapons as part of a Russia-US deal.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and US secretary of state John Kerry agreed the plan on Saturday (14 September) in Geneva after three days of talks.

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It says Syria must in one week disclose details of its chemical arsenal to the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an intergovernmental body created in 1997 and based in The Hague.

It must give OPCW staff full access to it facilities.

OPCW personnel are to destroy "production and mixing/filling equipment" by November.

They are to destroy all remaining "weapons material and equipment" in the first half of 2014.

If Syria does not comply, if it uses chemical weapons or if it tries to sneak them to allies in Lebanon and Iran, then Russia and the US "concur" that "the UN Security Council should impose measures under chapter VII of the UN charter," or, in other words, should authorise use of military force.

Syria itself on Saturday ratified the OCPW charter.

It also welcomed the deal. "It's a victory for Syria achieved thanks to our Russian friends," its reconciliation minister, Ali Haidar, told Russian news agency Ria Novosti.

But Syrian rebel leaders rejected it. "We cannot accept this initiative … We will continue to fight until the fall of the regime," Free Syrian Army chief Selim Idriss told press in Istanbul.

For his part, Kerry said in Geneva: "I have no doubt that the combination of the threat of force and the willingness to pursue diplomacy helped to bring us to this moment."

Lavrov warned Syrian rebels "not to create threats to [OPCW] international personnel."

Leading EU countries France, Germany and the UK, as well as China and Iran, have endorsed the agreement.

Chancellor Angela Merkel told an election rally in Germany on Sunday it creates hope for a political solution to the civil war.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, while visiting China, said: "Only a few days ago, Syria was denying having chemical weapons and having used them. From now on we are in a new phase."

British foreign minister William Hague noted in London: "This is a significant step forward."

EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton added in a statement: "A number of EU member states have the technical knowledge necessary to assist in securing sites, and in dismantling and destroying certain chemical agents … the EU stands ready to offer further support to the OPCW in carrying out its important and urgent tasks."

Syrian rebels are not the only ones unhappy with developments, however.

Two US senators from the opposition Republican Party, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, predict Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad will use the chemical deal to muzzle international critics while he continues to massacre civilians.

They said it is "the start of a diplomatic blind alley, and the Obama administration is being led into it by Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin," referring to US President Barack Obama and Russian head of state Vladimir Putin.

With Kerry due in Jerusalem for talks with Israeli leaders on Sunday, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt noted that Israel is also suspected of having chemical weapons.

"After Syria deal, with implementation to be watched carefully, Israel should ratify and Egypt sign and ratify Chemical Weapons Convention," he tweeted.

Kerry in Geneva also explained how the deal came about.

The initiative took off after Kerry, at a press conference in London last Monday, said, in an off-the-cuff remark, that al-Assad could avoid military strikes by handing over "every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week."

He noted in Switzerland on Saturday that he had discussed the idea with Lavrov by phone in the run-up to the G20 summit in St Petersburg before the London press event.

He said Obama and Putin also talked about it in St Petersburg and that "the rest is history."

In EU circles, the Polish foreign ministry is putting it about that its minister, Radek Sikorski, came up with the plan.

An EU diplomat told EUobserver it originated in a meeting of eight Nordic and Baltic foreign ministers in Visby, Sweden, on 4 September, however.

The diplomat said the eight countries discussed Syria after requests for Ashton to convene an EU-level debate fell on deaf ears.

EU-Syria diplomacy in limbo

The EU is upholding diplomatic privileges for Syrian officials despite the fact there is no EU-Syria diplomacy.

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