WASHINGTON – The U.S.-Russian plan for the removal or destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough just days ago, appeared to run into trouble Wednesday as the Obama administration backed off a deadline for the Syrian government to submit a full inventory of its toxic stockpiles and facilities to international inspectors.
The State Department signaled that it does not expect Syrian President Bashar Assad to produce the list within seven days, as spelled out in the framework deal that Washington and Moscow announced last weekend in Geneva.
Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said Wednesday that “our goal is to see forward momentum” by Saturday, not the full list. “We’ve never said it was a hard and fast deadline.”
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry had described the deadline as the first of a series of “specific timelines” that would indicate whether Syria is committed to the pact, which demands that Assad's government give up its chemical weapons in exchange for the United States shelving the threat of airstrikes.
“We agreed that Syria must submit within a week – not in 30 days, but in one week -- a comprehensive listing,” Kerry said Saturday. He said the U.S. would allow “no games, no room for avoidance or anything less than full compliance.”
Although Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, sought last weekend to portray the two powers as united, the gap between them has become more apparent in the days since and is threatening to snarl efforts to craft a United Nations Security Council resolution that lays out how Syria is to meet its obligations.
The resolution needs to be complete before the first steps can be taken to eliminate the arsenal. But diplomats said that Western nations split with Russia in a meeting Tuesday over Western demands for tough enforcement of the agreement.
Diplomats hope to complete the resolution by Friday, but if they fall short, the work may be delayed further because of a meeting next week of the U.N. General Assembly.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international body based in The Hague, is expected to take several days to complete its analysis of Syria's “initial declaration,” and then will submit its report to the United Nations.
“If the first deadline is going to slip, you’d better start watching the others,” said Paula DeSutter, who served as assistant secretary of State for verification, compliance and implementation in the George W. Bush administration.
Western diplomats close to the deliberations sounded wary that the Syrians might try to “cheat and retreat,” as the government has in the past, and as Saddam Hussein’s government did in Iraq, in the face of international weapons inspections.
“We’re not going to lose a lot of faith in the Syrians, because we’re not starting out with a lot,” said one diplomat, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.