Albanian 'No' deals blow to Syria chemical weapons plan

THE HAGUE/TIRANA Fri Nov 15, 2013 5:44pm EST

1 of 10. Albanians celebrate Prime Minister Edi Rama's rejection of a request by the U.S. to be part of an operation to destroy Syria's chemical weapons in Tirana November 15, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Arben Celi

THE HAGUE/TIRANA (Reuters) - Albania rejected on Friday a U.S. request to host the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, dealing a blow to a U.S.-Russian accord to eliminate the nerve agents from the country's protracted civil war.

Negotiations went down to the wire as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague hit the deadline on Friday for a step-by-step plan to get rid of 1,300 tonnes of Syria's sarin, mustard and other agents.

After the Albanian decision, the Nobel Peace prize winning body adopted a plan on Friday night that set out deadlines in the destruction process but did not name a host country or detail security arrangements.

Albania's refusal marked an unprecedented break from its traditionally staunch allegiance to NATO ally Washington and may make it hard to meet destruction deadlines.

It followed a storm of protest in the Adriatic republic, where protesters complained of exploitation.

"It is impossible for Albania to get involved in this operation," Prime Minister Edi Rama, just two months in the job, said in a televised address to the nation.

"We lack the necessary capacities to get involved in this operation," he said, following days of growing protests outside government buildings.

Hundreds of demonstrators, including students cutting school classes, gathered to denounce the plan on Friday, "NO" painted on their faces.

There was no immediate indication where the United States or Russia might look next to dispose of thousands of tonnes of toxic waste. One source briefed on the discussions said Washington had bet on Albanian cooperation.

Faced with the threat of U.S. missile strikes, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September agreed to destroy the entire chemical weapons stockpile following a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of people in Damascus on August 21.

Washington said only Assad's forces could have carried out the attack, a charge the Syrian leader denied.

TIGHT DEADLINES

The plan adopted by the OPCW on Friday called for the "most critical" chemicals to be transported out of Syria by 31 December 2013, with the removal of all declared chemical substances and precursors, except for isopropanol, one of two key ingredients for sarin, no later than 5 February 2014.

Syria's chemical weapons facilities will be gradually destroyed between December 15 2013 and March 15 2014, while the destruction of the priority chemical weapons will be completed outside Syria by 31 March 2014. All other declared chemical materials will be eliminated by 30 June 2014.

"The plan provides a clear roadmap. It sets ambitious milestones to be met by the government," OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu said in a statement. "This next phase will be the most challenging and its timely execution will require the existence of a secure environment for the verification and transport of chemical weapons."

"Continuing international support and assistance for this endeavor will remain crucial," he said.

Saying it respected Albania's decision, the United States said the deadlines could still be met.

"The United States will continue to work with Allies and partners as well as the OPCW and the United Nations to ensure the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons program," the U.S. embassy in Tirana said in a statement.

"We remain confident that we will complete elimination of the program within the timeline agreed upon."

Still to be worked out, however, is how to safely transport the chemical weapons through contested territory to a port in northern Syria to be shipped abroad.

Once the chemicals are safely out of Syria, the pressure will be off for them to be destroyed in the short term, but diplomats are concerned they could fall be targeted by militants or stolen and sold on the black market.

The timetable is part of an ambitious disarmament pact, backed by the United Nations and which may also bring in the support of the NATO military alliance and other countries offering logistical, financial and technical assistance.

(Additional reporting by Lou Charbonneau in New York; editing by Matt Robinson and Philippa Fletcher)

(This story was refiled after OPCW officially corrected date in the 13th paragraph)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (4)
RecycleBin wrote:
The USA thought that Albania was it’s best ally and sided with the Albanians during Balkan wars.
Everyone knew that they are just siding with the USA because of their own agenda (Muslim Greater Albania) but the USA did not understand that.
Hopefully now it understands.

Nov 15, 2013 6:27pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Eranda wrote:
“One source briefed on the discussions said Washington had bet on Albanian cooperation.” This was the whole issue that arose in Albania opposing chemical weapons. It seems that PM of Albania had promised US “in principle” to assist with the destruction. The US ambassador said on TV that Rama had given a “yes” for this process. Rama should not have given a yes, even in principle, if he had not discussed this issue with Parliament, etc. This is not a simple agreement. It is a serious one. He put the relationship between US and Albania at peril by doing this. As an Albanian, I strongly opposed the chemical arms into Albania for many reasons, but the tactic Rama used leaves too much questioning. US asked Albania for a “favor” because Albania is considered a strong ally of US. In tough times, you ask a friend to give you a hand. US was never going to ask Serbia to do this for example. So, US thought Albania will accept because of the relationship between the countries — which again is not a reasonable request but it is acceptable in friendships. I believe the discussions were done premature and this led to the fact that to the Albanian people US looked like was using Albania, this small and poor country, and was taking advantage of the friendship. Rama owes US an apology if he promised when he shouldn’t have but did not deliver.

Nov 15, 2013 6:34pm EST  --  Report as abuse
douggren wrote:
Obama and Putin want to scrap the weapons then do iot in USA or Russia not pick on some poor country to host what could be leathal to their own people.

Nov 15, 2013 6:46pm EST  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.

Full focus