A diplomat speaking anonymously revealed that at a Jan. 8 meeting a representative of the government of Syria reported "that insurgents had assaulted two storage sites for some of the deadly chemical weapons components it has pledged to eliminate," the New York Times reported late Wednesday.[1]  --  But Voice of America reported that the international special coordinator chosen by Ban Ki-moon to oversee the unprecedented operation, 52-year-old Dutch diplomat Sigrid Kaag, told the U.N. Security Council Wednesday that she is "cautiously optimistic" that Syria's chemical arms could be destroyed by the set deadline of June 30.[2]  --  The Associated Press reported that the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons exhorted Syria on Wednesday to intensify its efforts "to get its stockpile of raw materials for poison gas and nerve agents to a port" as quickly as possible.[3] ...

1.

Middle East

SYRIA REPORTS 2 ATTACKS ON CHEMICAL ARMS SITES

By Nick Cumming-Bruce and Rick Gladstone

New York Times

January 8, 2014

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/09/world/middleeast/syria-chemical-arms.html

GENEVA -- Syria’s government said Wednesday that insurgents had assaulted two storage sites for some of the deadly chemical weapons components it has pledged to eliminate.  It was the first time the Syrian authorities had reported such attacks in the three months since an international effort began to sequester and purge the country of the banned munitions.

Bassam Sabbagh, the Syrian representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Hague-based group that is helping oversee the destruction of the Syrian arsenal, reported the attacks at the group’s executive council meeting, according to a European diplomat who was present.  The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting’s deliberations were private and the Syrian’s account was not publicly disclosed.

The attacks, if confirmed, underscore the difficulties in securing and destroying the chemical weapons in the midst of a civil war, a point that the organization’s officials have repeatedly made since an ambitious joint mission with the United Nations to eliminate them began in early October with the Syrian government’s consent.

The Syrian government is facing increased pressure to accelerate the process for ridding the country of the most dangerous materials among the 1,200 tons of toxic agents it has amassed over the years.  It missed the deadline for exporting them by Dec. 31.  The entire arsenal must be destroyed by June 30, under a Security Council resolution approved in September.

The first cargo of the most dangerous materials bound for export was loaded onto a Danish vessel on Tuesday in the Syrian port of Latakia, a step that the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons called an important sign of progress.

Officials declined to comment on the account by Mr. Sabbagh, who told the executive council that insurgents had assaulted a storage site near the city of Homs and a second site outside Damascus, according to the European diplomat.  Mr. Sabbagh did not specify when the attacks took place, the identities of the attackers, or what damage, if any, had resulted, but said that the attacks “would have been disastrous if the terrorist plans had worked,” the European diplomat said.

“It was unexpected,” the diplomat said.  “I was surprised that this was the first we had heard of them.”

On Wednesday, the top United Nations official coordinating the joint mission in Syria briefed the Security Council privately on the progress and told reporters at United Nations headquarters afterward that Syria was eager to get rid of the stockpile “within the shortest possible delay.”

The official, Sigrid Kaag, said nothing about attacks on Syrian storage facilities.  But she said that “security is a big factor in all that takes place” and that the mid-2014 deadline for the complete destruction of the Syrian arsenal could still be met despite the civil war raging in Syria.

Ms. Kaag said the public should not worry about the deadliest compounds, known as Priority 1 chemicals, aboard the Danish vessel, which will remain at sea with the cargo, then dock at Latakia again to collect the remainder when it is ready to be loaded.

Once the entire stockpile of the deadliest compounds, estimated to total 500 tons, is on the ship, it will go to Italy, where the chemicals will be transferred to an American naval vessel equipped to render them harmless.

“They’re safe and secure, they’re properly guarded, and all efforts have been made to keep them in that way,” Ms. Kaag told reporters.  “Everything has been done to make sure that this is properly handled.”

She declined to specify how many tons were in the initial cargo, how long the Danish ship would wait offshore, or how many times it would have to return to Latakia to load the remainder.  Such details, she said, are part of a “very tightly held, and I think rightly so, operation.”

Asked to rate the level of cooperation from the Syrian authorities, Ms. Kaag described it as constructive, but said “I’m not in the rating business.”

The transportation and export of the most dangerous chemicals, which include mustard gas, VX nerve agent, and the agents needed to create sarin gas, have always been considered the most hazardous steps of the operation.  Yet an unusually collaborative international effort is underway, including maritime security provided by Russia, China, Norway, and Denmark.

Syria’s pledge to renounce chemical weapons and join the treaty that bans them was a product of intensive diplomacy by the United States and Russia.  The agreement averted an American military response to a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21 that killed hundreds of civilians.  The United States blamed the government of President Bashar al-Assad; Mr. Assad and rebels seeking to depose him blamed each other.

While the Syrian authorities made rapid progress destroying the facilities for making chemical weapons and the munitions for delivering them, the process for getting the chemicals out of the country has been much slower.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and diplomats following the proceedings in The Hague have carefully avoided accusing Mr. Assad of any backsliding, but the tone of their comments has taken on a firmer edge.

“We want to make it clear that any additional delays could really imperil the ability to meet the overall deadlines,” Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the organization, said in a telephone interview.  “What also needs to be made clear is that we need to see activity pick up now.”

2.

News

Middle East

U.N.: DESTRUCTION OF SYRIA'S CHEMICAL WEAPONS MOVING AHEAD

By Margaret Besheer

Voice of Amreica
January 8, 2014

http://www.voanews.com/content/un-official-says-destruction-of-syrias-chemical-weapons-moving-ahead/1826183.html

UNITED NATIONS -- The international special coordinator overseeing the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons said Wednesday that despite insecurity, she hopes to meet the mission’s deadline of the end of June.
 
Sigrid Kaag briefed the U.N. Security Council in a closed session on progress as well as logistical and security challenges, confirming that the first quantity of chemical materials was loaded onto a Danish ship Tuesday at the Syrian port of Latakia for destruction outside the country.
 
“This movement is very important, as it is a first important step in an expected process of continued movement for the onward destruction out of country,” she said.
 
The joint mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has struggled with some setbacks, including bad weather, and a volatile security situation, putting it slightly behind schedule.  Asked if the mission could still meet its end of June deadline for destroying all of Syria’s chemical weapons, Kaag was cautiously optimistic.
 
“I didn’t say we are on schedule, but what we talked about is a collective expectation by the Security Council" that there is no reason to assume delays would occur, she said.  "All things being equal, we also have to remember Syria is a country at war; [the] security situation can shift from day to day."

The mission is moving into its third phase of activities, the destruction of chemical agents, which is to be completed by the end of June.
 
The United States is providing technology for destroying the chemicals aboard a U.S. ship, as well as 3,000 container drums, GPS trackers, and equipment to facilitate loading, transportation and decontamination of the chemicals.
 
The Syrian government is responsible for the safe packaging and loading of the chemicals onto Danish and Norwegian ships which will carry the cargo to the U.S. ship. The chemicals will then be destroyed at sea.
 
In September, the U.N. Security Council demanded the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal after Western countries blamed the government for an August 21 poison gas attack that killed some 1,400 people near Damascus.

3.

WATCHDOG WANTS TO SPEED UP SYRIAN DISARMAMENT

By Mike Corder

Associated Press
January 8, 2014

http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/watchdog-speed-syrian-disarmament-21460817

The global chemical weapons watchdog on Wednesday urged Syria to intensify efforts to get its stockpile of raw materials for poison gas and nerve agents to a port, so it can be shipped out of the country and destroyed.

The first batch of toxic chemicals -- believed to be precursors for mustard gas and sarin -- was loaded onto a Danish cargo ship in the Syrian port of Latakia and shipped toward international waters on Tuesday, a week after the Dec. 31 deadline initially set for the chemicals to be removed from Syria.

Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons spokesman Michael Luhan said the Nobel Peace Prize-winning watchdog is "exhorting the Syrian government to intensify its efforts so we can conclude this critical part of this mission absolutely as fast as conditions allow."

Speaking at a closed-door meeting of the group's decision-making Executive Council, Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said Syria has been given "virtually all of the necessary logistical resources for the ground transportation" of chemicals to Latakia, according to an OPCW statement.

The chemicals were supposed to have been removed from Syria by Dec. 31, but poor security, bad weather and other factors meant the deadline was missed.

Sigrid Kaag, the special coordinator of the joint United Nations/OPCW mission, briefed the U.N. Security Council privately in New York, and afterward told reporters that Syria's participation in the process "is constructive on all measures" and added that "the Syrian authorities are very keen to get this done."

Kaag expressed hope that the original June 30 final deadline for the complete destruction of the chemicals could still be achieved, saying there is "no reason to assume that delays should occur, all things being equal," if security problems in the Syrian civil war don't block the export of the chemicals.

The Danish ship is now in international waters waiting for the next consignment to arrive in Latakia.

The chemicals removed Tuesday will eventually be transferred to a U.S. ship, the Cape Ray, which has been fitted with special machinery.  Once aboard the American vessel, the materials will be placed in a titanium reactor that uses heated water and other chemicals to render them inert.  Italy has agreed to provide port facilities for the Danish ship to offload the chemicals onto the Cape Ray.

The confirmed use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Aug. 21 killed hundreds of people, according to the U.S. government.  The U.S. and Russia -- a staunch ally of Syria -- later reached agreement to eliminate the Assad regime's chemical weapons in a deal that averted U.S. military strikes against Syria.

--Associated Press writer Peter James Spielmann contributed to this story from the United Nations.