TARTUS, Syria — A top general in Syria’s army on Saturday rejected criticism of his government’s efforts to hand over its chemical weapons stockpiles, saying that the unstable security situation had made delays inevitable.
“The Syrian government has spent a great deal of money to move these weapons out of dangerous parts of the country to the port,” the general told The Huffington Post, speaking on condition of anonymity. The general is responsible for a critical stretch of highway that much of the chemicals must pass through to reach their destination in the port city of Latakia. “But even so, the West still complains that we are not doing enough?”
In September, the Syrian government struck a deal with Western governments to shut down its chemical weapons program and either destroy its stockpiles or turn them over to the international community, in order to avert an American threat of airstrikes.
But the process has been plagued by delays. In early February, Syrian officials acknowledged that they would be missing a second deadline for the removal, but insisted that they were still committed to the effort. Some 90 percent of the weapons were originally supposed to have been destroyed by the beginning of last month.
American officials have accused the Syrian government of “stalling” in order to avoid having to fully comply with the agreement.
The Tartus general spoke in an office that was heavily adorned with paintings and portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad and had a minor armory on a sofa in the corner, including an American-made M-4 assault rifle. He said the route he oversees is rife with dangers.
“We’re worried about the militants,” he said, using one of the government’s preferred terms for rebel fighters. “They could attack us at any time, or try to set off explosives around our convoys. It would be a terrible disaster.”
The highway around Tartus has been under government control for some time, but it still periodically comes under attack, and at points runs perilously close to towns — including some across the border in Lebanon — that are controlled by opposition fighters.
“The terrorists in Arsal [Lebanon] are very close to here,” he said. “And now the militants have much better weapons, including rockets that can travel 10, 15 kilometers. It’s an extremely dangerous situation.”
Nonetheless, the general noted that just the day before the interview, on Friday, a “large transfer” of chemicals had been quietly made from the Latakia port.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international agency that, along with the United Nations, is tasked with managing the transfer of Syria’s chemicals weapons out of the country, is normally secretive about the day-to-day operations of its mission.
But in a message on her Twitter feed last week, the mission’s director, Sigrid Kaag, did confirm that a “significant quantity” of materials were exported from the country on Friday. Another shipment, of mustard gas, was removed two days earlier, she said.
In a new posting made on Tuesday, Kaag added that about one-third of the Syrian government's stockpiles of chemical weapons have so far been removed or destroyed. “Momentum to continue!” she wrote.