OPCW adopts new Syria chem weapons plan after Albania refuses to host stockpile dismantling

OPCW adopts new Syria chem weapons plan after Albania refuses to host stockpile dismantling
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) adopted a new plan Friday night for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, after Albania refused to host the dismantling of the stockpile.

The country turned the option down despite a request by the US, its NATO ally.

“It is impossible for Albania to get involved in this operation,
” Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said Friday, following a heated debate discussions with several UN members, including the US and days of growing public discontent at home. 

The move struck a blow to a US-Russian deal to eliminate Assad’s chemical arsenal, as the OPCW hit the deadline Friday for a step-by-step plan to get rid of 1,300 tons of Syria's sarin, mustard gas, and other agents.

The plan adopted on Friday night sets out new deadlines for the dismantling process, but does not name the host country. "Syrian chemical weapons will be transported for destruction outside its territory to ensure their destruction in the 'safest and soonest manner', and no later than June 30th 2014," reads a statement on the organization's website.

"The plan provides a clear roadmap. It sets ambitious milestones to be met by the government," OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu said. "This next phase will be the most challenging and its timely execution will require the existence of a secure environment for the verification and transport of chemical weapons." 

"Continuing international support and assistance for this endeavour will remain crucial," he added.

According to the plan, the "most critical" chemicals will be transported out of Syria by December 31, 2013. All other declared chemical substances and precursors will be removed no later than February 5, 2014, with the exception of isopropanol – one of the two key ingredients for sarin.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama delivers a speech during a televised address to Albanians in Tirana on November 15, 2013. (AFP Photo / Gent Shkullaku)

The possibility of Tirana inviting thousands of tons of toxic waste from Syria to be destroyed on its territory sparked protests, with hundreds of demonstrators taking to the streets to say “no” to such a plan.

"We lack the necessary capacities to get involved in this operation," PM Rama added in his televised address on Friday.

Albania was considering hosting a facility for dismantling the chemicals at the request of the United States, its close Western ally.

However, an OPCW source earlier told Reuters, Albania may not be the only hope for the completion of the plan.

“There will be no host country in the decision this afternoon. But they [the US] have alternatives,” the OPCW source said. 

A man wearing a gas mask joins Albanian environmental activists as they take part in a protest in front of the Prime Ministerís office in Tirana on November 15, 2013, over the possibility of the Republic of Albania processing and destroying 1.000 tons of chemical weapons from Syria in its military facilities (AFP Photo / Gent Shkullaku)

In September, Russia and the US brokered a deal with the Syrian government to destroy the entire chemical weapons arsenal of the war-torn country. The deal came after several chemical attacks, for which the government and the rebel fighters exchanged blame. While Russia said it believes at least one of the attacks was a provocation carried out by the rebels, the US blamed Syrian government forces for the deadly incidents, and threatened Assad with a military strike.

While the ensuing UN investigation stopped short of naming any side of the Syrian conflict responsible for chemical weapons use, the international deal on destroying the stockpile of these weapons in Syria averted US military intervention. The strike also proved to be unpopular among many US allies, with the UK parliament giving the thumbs down on UK involvement in any such action. US Congress was also apparently divided on meddling in the Syrian civil war. 

The joint Russian-US, UN-backed plan on Syrian chemical weapons destruction outlined a very tight schedule of procedures, stating that the initial on-site inspections and the elimination of related equipment should be finished by November, and all chemical materials must be completely destroyed in the first half of 2014.

An image grab taken from Syrian television on October 10, 2013 shows inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) at work at an undisclosed location in Syria. (AFP Photo)

However, while the initial stage went smoothly in close cooperation with the OPCW and the Syrian government, the destruction of the chemical arsenal turned out to be a challenge, as it was deemed too dangerous to carry it out amid the war in Syria. The need arose for a third party country that would agree to host the operation, as well as concerns for the safety of the shipment of chemical materials through Syria and abroad.

Despite Albania’s refusal, the US remains “confident that we will complete elimination of the [weapons] program within the timeline agreed upon,” the US embassy in Tirana said in a statement quoted by Reuters.

Taking into account the situation on the ground, the OPCW said it plans to finish its mission by the end of June 2014.

“Given the context in which the joint mission is operating, we will aim to remain flexible and responsive to developments on the ground, continually working toward the June 30 deadline to complete our mandate,” Sigrid Kaag, Special Coordinator of the Joint UN-OPCW mission, said in a statement on Friday. 

Albanian environmental activists hold up national flags and signs as they take part in a protest in front of the Albanian parliament in Tirana on November 14, 2013, over the possibility of the Republic of Albania processing and destroying 1.000 tons of chemical weapons from Syria in its military facilities. (AFP Photo)