WASHINGTON — The Obama administration warned Syria on Friday that it faces punitive measures if it persists in delaying the removal of chemical weapons components under an international agreement that narrowly averted U.S. military strikes.
It was uncertain, however, whether the administration could deliver on its warning. Any punitive measures would have to win the approval of the U.N. Security Council, where Russia, a leading international backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, could use its veto to block anything with which it disagreed.
Russia made clear that it disagreed with U.S. accusations that Assad is deliberately delaying the surrender of his chemical weapons, saying that he’s “acting in good faith” and that a June 30 deadline for eliminating his stockpiles can still be met.
The wrangling over the chemical weapons operation came as the first round of peace talks between the Assad regime and a Western-backed opposition delegation ended in Geneva with no progress made toward a political settlement of the civil war that’s estimated to have claimed more than 130,000 lives since mid-2011.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the special U.N. mediator, said the opposition delegation would come back for the second round beginning Feb. 10 but that government negotiators told him they’d have to consult their leadership before committing to return.
There was no give in the positions of the sides. They failed even to agree on a plan to allow aid to reach an estimated 2,500 civilians trapped in the government siege of the rebel-controlled old city district in Homs.
There was, however, better news for the besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, where an estimated 18,000 people have been trapped as pro-Assad forces surround rebel fighters who control the district. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides aid to Palestinian refugees, said the government had “facilitated” the delivery in the past two days of more than 2,000 food packets, each of which can feed as many as eight people for 10 days. The deliveries were the first in months to the camp, where residents have said they’ve been eating grass and cactus to survive.
UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness said in an email to reporters that “large crowds of desperate people “ had met the food deliveries. He said UNRWA appreciated the “support” of the government in facilitating the deliveries and that the agency had “received assurances that the authorities will continue to facilitate” such deliveries.
Meanwhile, the United States and 10 other countries that back the opposition issued a statement after a meeting in London that held the Syrian government responsible for the deadlock in Geneva.
The U.S. warning to Assad over the pace of the chemical weapons-destruction operation came a day after the Obama administration said the Syrian government had sent only 4 percent of the most dangerous components of its 1,433-ton chemical weapons stockpile to the port of Latakia for shipment abroad for destruction. All those components were to have been surrendered by Dec. 31.
Syria’s agreement to destroy its chemical weapons, which was first proposed by Russia, averted military strikes that President Barack Obama had threatened to unleash after what the United States and other Western powers charged was the government’s use of sarin nerve gas in an attack Aug. 21 that killed hundreds of people in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.
The government blamed the attack on rebels fighting to end 40 years of Assad family rule.
Secretary of State John Kerry said during a visit to Germany on Friday that “the Assad regime is not moving as rapidly as it promised” under the chemical weapons removal and destruction agreement. He reminded Damascus that it faces referral to the Security Council, which authorized the accord, if it continues to delay the operation.
“We have serious issues to talk about in terms of compliance with the agreement that the United Nations Security Council has ratified, and that is now a global legal international obligation,” Kerry said. “Our hope is that Syria will move rapidly to live up to its obligations.”
Any referral of Syrian noncompliance, he said, would be made under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which could subject Damascus to punitive measures that range from international economic sanctions to military intervention.
But Russia — one of the Security Council’s five veto-wielding permanent members — almost certainly would block any resolution that authorized measures it considered too harsh.
Moreover, said Gregory H. Fox, an international legal expert at Wayne State University Law School, it would be very unusual for the Security Council to approve military force as a first step.
Instead, he said, its first move most likely would be to set a deadline for Syria to fulfill the agreement and threaten further measures if it failed to do so.
The Interfax news agency quoted Russian Foreign Ministry official Mikhail Ulyanov as rejecting the U.S. charges of Syrian foot-dragging.
“The Syrians are approaching the fulfillment of their obligations seriously and in good faith,” he said. “Our American partners, in their usual manner, are betting on pressure even into those cases where there is absolutely no need for it.”
U.S. officials have reiterated in recent days that Obama hasn’t removed the threat of a military strike should Assad fail to uphold his end of the agreement.
The Obama administration, intent on avoiding military entanglement in Syria’s grinding civil war, was relieved that the deal allowed it to put off military strikes, though the move was devastating to Syrian opposition figures and rebels, who’d been counting on U.S. intervention to weaken the better-armed regime forces.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said Friday that Syria “must immediately take the necessary actions to comply with its obligations” under the Chemical Weapons Convention and the agreement that the Security Council inked in September. He dismissed Syrian excuses for the delay.
“We all know the Syrian regime has the capability to move these weapons,” Carney said. “We know that because they’ve been moved multiple times before, during the conflict.”
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international watchdog that’s supervising the removal alongside the United Nations, urged Syria to move more quickly. Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu was quoted in a statement as saying that the Syrians need to “pick up the pace.”
“Ways and means must be found to establish continuity and predictability of shipments to assure states parties that the program, while delayed, is not deferred,” Uzumcu told a meeting of the organization’s executive council.
Uzumcu also described his exchanges with senior Syrian officials. According to his organization’s release, the Syrians suggested that the delay was due to security concerns — an assertion rejected by the United States — and reiterated their commitment to transporting and removing the chemicals on schedule. The organization decided to meet Feb. 21 to continue deliberating on the matter.
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.