Exclusive: West scorns Assad 'shopping list' for chemical convoys

THE HAGUE Mon Nov 11, 2013 12:11pm EST

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel in Damascus, in this handout photograph distributed by Syria's national news agency SANA on October 7, 2013. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel in Damascus, in this handout photograph distributed by Syria's national news agency SANA on October 7, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/SANA/Handout via Reuters

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THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Western powers will turn down a Syrian request for military transport equipment to ship out chemical weapons material, saying the armored trucks and other gear could be used to fight the revolt, diplomats told Reuters.

President Bashar al-Assad's administration presented what envoys from two Western governments called a "long shopping list" to fit out and protect road convoys from Damascus to the coast through the conflict zone. But, they said, the agency overseeing Syria's chemical disarmament would reject this on the grounds most items could aid Assad's army in the civil war.

"There is no way that the regime will be supplied with equipment that could be used by the army to kill more innocent Syrians," said one diplomat, whose government could block any consensus in the executive of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) at The Hague.

"It's not going to happen."

Diplomats said Syria asked the OPCW on October 21 for dozens of armored vehicles, generators and field kitchens among gear it said it needed to move 1,300 tons of chemicals to the Mediterranean port of Latakia to fulfill a U.N.-backed deal to eliminate its capacity to engage in chemical warfare.

It also sought new communications links between Damascus and coastal towns, saying that would help secure the road for the dozens of containers required. Damascus and the coastal heartland of his minority Alawite sect are the main bastions of Assad's power, but rebels threaten the routes between them.

A diplomat from another major Western power said of the Syrian request: "They will not get it from us and I don't think the UN, or EU which has applied sanctions, will do so either."

A Syrian foreign ministry spokesman did not reply to a request for comment and it is unclear whether Western refusal of equipment might hold up disarmament. Western powers, who have offered funding for the operation, believe Syria can make shipments without additional equipment which could have clear military uses - despite risks of violence along the roads.

One diplomat said that Western governments might consider a revised list of equipment, such as flatbed trucks, and could also insist that supplies were shipped out of Syria along with the chemical cargoes, thus denying them to Assad's forces.

Damascus could also turn to individual suppliers, such as Russia, if the OPCW cannot meet its request. Russia has defended Assad from U.N. sanctions and has continued to fulfill Syrian contracts for military equipment.

FRIDAY DEADLINE

The U.N.-backed OPCW and Syria are negotiating ahead of a deadline of Friday, November 15, on a detailed plan for removing or destroying toxins, chemical weapons and "precursor" materials that can be used to make poisons by a target date next year.

Disagreement on the details of shipment are unlikely to hold that up. It is still unclear where chemicals that cannot be destroyed in Syria might go - Albania is one possibility.

A draft agreement, seen by Reuters, shows the United States and Russia, joint sponsors of the U.N.-Syria deal, want most of the material out of the country by the end of December, though final destruction might take another year.

Western officials, who agreed to the Russian-brokered disarmament deal in September as an alternative to military action against Assad following a major sarin gas attack in August, say it is Syria's responsibility to disarm itself.

Assad has said the operation will cost $1 billion, but international experts put it at a few hundred million dollars.

The OPCW has received around $13 million for its work in Syria, mostly from Washington. China, Russia and others have offered experts, technical staff and other aid in kind.

Officials at the OPCW did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Despite the rejection of Syria's initial list of supplies, Western diplomats involved in the process acknowledge concerns that a convoy could be attacked by militants or caught in crossfire or that truckloads of chemicals could be hijacked by profiteers on either side hoping to sell them on.

There is no plan to transport readily usable chemical weapons. Trucks would carry mostly component materials. But the prospect of U.N. or outside military force escorting convoys on the ground seems remote, given the reluctance of foreign powers to send troops into Syria's complex conflict.

The OPCW has said Damascus has cooperated in recent weeks to put its chemical weapons plants out of action. Some of its stockpile of armaments and chemical components may be destroyed inside Syria, but the complexity of doing so in a country at war means most is expected to have to be shipped abroad.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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