Nine months after Syria agreed to give up its entire chemical-weapons stockpile, almost all of it has left the country, headed for destruction in the open sea.
But nearly 8 percent, or some 100 metric tons of chemicals, remain at a single site in Syria. Reaching that site has not been easy, and it looks like the country will miss its target date of June 30 for the total destruction of its arsenal. The other 92 percent has been carted out of the country on Norwegian and Danish ships traveling to Italy. There, the chemical weapons were handed over to U.S. Navy vessels, which have been tasked with destroying them in international waters.
The last shipment out of the country took place around June 8. The remaining 8 percent is packed up and ready to go, but Syrian authorities now say that the security situation near the storage site would make any attempt to remove the chemicals too dangerous.
They have reason to worry. On May 26, a team of experts and officials from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the lead group in the disarmament effort, and the United Nations was ambushed while traveling to the city of Kafr Zita to investigate allegations of chlorine use against civilians. The militants responsible had ignored a local cease-fire that had been "carefully negotiated" with the Syrian government and armed opposition groups in the area for that specific day. The team made it back to safety in Damascus; one driver sustained minor injuries.
But the Obama administration says that Syria is using safety concerns as an excuse to stall the OPCW investigation into its chemical-weapons use. When the disarmament operation began, the area surrounding the site was much safer than it is now, officials say. "From the beginning, we have pressed the Assad regime and we will continue to press the Assad regime to complete expeditiously removal operations," White House press secretary Jay Carney said a few days after the attack near Kafr Zita.
The question is whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will listen to the U.S. on that score — and whether Russian President Vladimir Putin, his primary sponsor, will push him to do it.