Chemical weapons official says OPCW plan for destroying Syria's toxic arsenal may be delayed

All the elements for ridding Syria of its declared stockpile of toxic chemicals are in place but the unprecedented effort could be delayed, an official from the global chemical weapons watchdog said Tuesday after the group's executive council reviewed the plan.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons' 41-nation council asked Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu to report back Jan. 7 on progress in executing the Syrian plan, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the OPCW was not planning to release details until Wednesday.

According to a detailed timeline agreed upon earlier, the most toxic chemicals in Syria's weapons program — including precursors for sarin nerve gas — were to have been removed from the country by Dec. 31 and Syria's entire chemical weapons program should be history by mid-2014.

But those ambitious deadlines have been cast into doubt by poor security in Syria, which is in the third year of a devastating civil war, as well as mundane logistical issues like getting trucks through customs and even through the severe winter weather that has buffeted the Middle East.

"There is a possibility we may have to revisit the upcoming target date of Dec. 31," the official said.

While the OPCW did not release the plan, the official confirmed that most elements already were known, based on offers made publicly by several countries.

Syria will transport hundreds of tons of chemicals to its port of Latakia, where they will be put on board Danish and Norwegian ships and taken to an as yet unspecified port in Italy. There they will be transferred to a U.S. government ship, the MV Cape Ray, which has machinery that will neutralize the chemicals by mixing them with other chemicals and heated water.

The Danish and Norwegian ships will return to Syria to pick up hundreds of tons of less-toxic chemicals that will be destroyed by private companies.

The OPCW official, who was at the meeting, said the executive council "gave the director-general quite a clear go-ahead" to implement the plan.

This is the first time that the OPCW, which won this year's Nobel Peace Prize, has overseen a chemical disarmament operation in a country in the middle of a war.

The United States will use a mobile Field Deployable Hydrolysis System to process the most toxic chemicals, making them unusable as weapons. Syria's production capacity for making chemical weapons was destroyed or rendered inoperable in October, when it smashed the machines used to mix chemicals and fill munitions.

The disarmament plan came into being after global outrage at a sarin attack on a Damascus suburb in August that killed hundreds of people, including many children. Washington and its allies blamed Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime for the atrocity. Assad agreed to join the OPCW and give up his chemical weapons program to ward off likely retaliatory U.S. airstrikes.

Syria still denies responsibility, however, for the Damascus attack.