White House Will ‘Make Sure’ Syria Meets Its Chemical Weapons Obligations

By Patrick Goodenough | February 3, 2014 | 4:23 AM EST

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough. (AP Photo, File)

(CNSNews.com) – As Syrian President Bashar Assad continues to defy the U.N. Security Council and undermine an Obama administration foreign policy achievement by dragging out a timeline for surrendering his chemical weapons stockpiles, the White House said Sunday the U.S. would “make sure” the regime complies.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough also disputed the notion that the U.S. was dependent on Russia to influence Assad.

“We’re not dependent on anybody in particular,” he said. “We’re going to make sure that the Syrians live up to their obligations. They have an obligation to the international community to do exactly what they said they’d do.”

Asked what would happen if Assad fails to do what they said they would, McDonough declined to elaborate.

“I’m not going to get into any ‘or whats’ here,” he told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

U.S. officials for several days have been expressing dismay that Syria has handed over just four percent of its declared chemical weapons stocks so far. Wednesday February 5 marks the deadline by which the regime is meant to have transported all of the toxic chemicals to the Mediterranean port of Latakia, for removal by foreign vessel.

Syria also missed an earlier deadline, Dec. 31, for handing over its most dangerous materiel – so-called “class A” chemicals making up 700 metric tons of the total 1,300-ton stockpile.

The U.S. and Western allies had hoped that Russia, Assad’s closest ally on the Security Council, would pressure him into meeting the obligations, but Moscow has displayed little inclination to do so, in public at least.

On the contrary, the Interfax news agency quoted Russia’s top disarmament official, Mikhail Ulyanov, as saying no additional pressure was necessary as the Syrians were acting “in good faith” to fulfil their commitments. (The U.S. has dismissed the regime’s claims that security and weather difficulties held up progress.)

It was Russia’s intervention in the first place that led to an agreement negotiated with the U.S. last fall to destroy the weapons. The Obama administration characterized the deal as a triumph of diplomacy, enabling the president to back away from threats to launch missile strikes in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack near Damascus last August.

Four months later, the agreement is way behind schedule, both the U.S. and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) agree.

Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of a security conference in Germany and asked him “to push the regime for more progress” on the weapons, an administration official said afterwards.

In tough remarks the same day, Kerry warned alongside his German counterpart in Berlin that “all the options that originally existed” remain on the table.

“We call on Bashar al-Assad to live up to his obligations or we will join together with our friends and talk about which, if any, of the options we deem necessary at this point to proceed forward,” he said.

Unless the U.S. decides to acts outside the U.N., however, any response to Syria’s non-compliance would require the passage of a fresh Security Council resolution. Russia has vetoed previous Security Council resolutions on the Syria conflict, and only supported the one last September on the chemical weapons deal because it contained no direct enforcement mechanism or automatic penalties for non-compliance.

The head of the OPCW’s Syria mission is due to brief the Security Council on the delays on Thursday. OPCW chief Ahmet Uzumcu told the organization’s executive council late last week that the chemicals removal process must be accelerated.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow