Russia yesterday offered assurances that the Syrian government will show up at a new round of peace talks next week and will soon ship more toxic agents abroad for destruction under a deal to eliminate its chemical weapons arsenal.
The statements appeared intended to ease Western concerns about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s commitment to a peace process that started last month, and to abandoning his chemical arsenal by mid-year under a deal brokered by Russia and the US.
They came as the Kremlin hosted the leader of the Syrian opposition National Coalition for the first time in the three-year-old conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and spawned mutual recriminations between Russia and the West.
Syria plans to send a large shipment of toxic agents out of the country this month and can complete the removal process by March 1, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said.
“Literally, yesterday, the Syrians announced that the removal of a large shipment of chemical substances is planned in February. They are ready to complete this process by March 1,” state-run Russia news agency RIA quoted Gatilov as saying.
Moscow, al-Assad’s most powerful diplomatic backer, has been under pressure to push Damascus to speed up shipments since Reuters reported last week that it had given up less than 5 percent of its chemical stockpile.
The operation was far behind schedule and the deadline for sending all toxic agents out by this week will be missed.
US officials accused Damascus of dragging its feet and US Secretary of State John Kerry asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday last week to put pressure on al-Assad’s government to accelerate the operation.
“The Syrian government is slowing down the destruction of its chemical weapons ... Bashar al-Assad’s government must respect the commitments that it has made,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius yesterday said on Europe 1 radio.
Russia has said Western concerns are overblown and rejected accusations that the delays are deliberate, citing security and logistical issues.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Monday said that Moscow remains confident the June 30 deadline for the elimination of Syria’s chemical arsenal can be met.
Despite sharp differences over the conflict in Syria, Russia and the US have joined forces to initiate peace talks that began last month in Geneva, and in September last year agreed the plan to eliminate its chemical arsenal after a deadly Aug. 21 poison gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus.
Al-Assad’s agreement to the plan, first proposed by Russia, helped avert potential US air strikes, but the delays have sparked Western suspicion he wants to use the process as a lever in the Geneva talks, which are expected to resume on Monday though the government delegation has not committed to return.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov yesterday said Russia is certain the government will attend.
“We have no doubt that the government delegation will take part in the second round of international talks in Geneva,” Bogdanov told reporters before talks between Lavrov and Syrian opposition leader Ahmed al-Jarba.
Sitting across from Lavrov at the start of their talks, al-Jarba said the opposition would take part “in spite of the fact that even during the Geneva process murders were continuing with the use of barrel bombs that were dropped on civilians.”