(Adds reaction and new details throughout)
By Lesley Wroughton and Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON Jan 30 The United States on Thursday
accused Syria of dragging its feet on giving up its chemical
arms, putting at risk a deal to remove such weapons of mass
destruction from the country as it splits apart in a chaotic
President Barack Obama this week touted the chemical weapons
agreement as one of the few U.S. diplomatic achievements on
Syria, but the State Department said just 4 percent of Syria's
deadliest chemical agents has been shipped out of the country
for destruction at sea.
The United States has few good choices to force President
Bashar al-Assad to comply.
A State Department spokeswoman warned that a military option
was still possible but urged diplomacy and called on Russia to
pressure its ally Damascus to comply with an agreement struck
last year to surrender its chemical arsenal.
"The effort to remove chemical agents and key precursor
chemicals from Syria has seriously languished and stalled,"
Robert Mikulak, the U.S. representative to the Organization for
the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), told the world's
chemicals weapons watchdog in The Hague.
In a blistering statement, Mikulak accused Syria of
"open-ended delaying" of the disarmament process.
Assad's decision in September to give up chemical arms
helped him avoid threatened U.S. air strikes in retaliation for
a poison gas attack near Damascus in August that killed hundreds
of people, many of them women and children.
But the international operation to dispose of Syria's
chemical stockpile is now six to eight weeks behind schedule and
it will miss next week's deadline for sending all toxic agents
abroad for destruction, sources familiar with the matter told
Delays pose a difficult challenge for Obama, who has faced
criticism at home and abroad for failing to do more to quell
Syria's nearly 3-year-old civil war.
Obama cited the chemical weapons deal in his annual state of
the Union address on Tuesday, saying "American diplomacy, backed
by the threat of force, is why Syria's chemical weapons are
U.S. CALL FOR RUSSIAN PRESSURE
Underscoring the Obama's administration's anxiety, U.S.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel discussed the issue in a call on
Wednesday with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei
Shogun, and asked him to "do what he could to influence the
Syrian government to comply."
In a rare case of diplomatic cooperation between the two
countries, Moscow and Washington joined forces last year to get
Assad to agree to give up his chemical weapons stockpiles.
But critics of Obama say Russia is too close to Syria - its
only ally in the Middle East - to enforce the agreement.
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a frequent Republican critic of
Obama's Syria policy, said: "Having the Russians disarm Assad is
sort of like Mussolini disarming Hitler; I'm not so sure it's
going to work."
Though the administration stopped short of threatening
action if Syria fails to comply, State Department spokeswoman
Jen Psaki said the United States had never taken the military
option off the table.
But she insisted diplomacy remained the preferred course and
said there was "still the possibility" that Syria would fulfill
its pledge to give up its chemical weapons even though, "They
are dragging their feet."
After gearing up for and then backing away from military
action last year, there seems to be little support in Congress
or among the war-weary American public for a new U.S. military
entanglement in the Middle East.
Obama's diplomatic engagement with Iran - another Assad ally
- is widely seen, at least in part, as driven by his desire to
avoid armed conflict over Tehran's nuclear program.
The White House said Syria needs to intensify its efforts to
transport chemical weapons to the Mediterranean port of Latakia,
from where the material is being shipped out.
"Syria has said that its delay in transporting these
chemicals has been caused by 'security concerns' and insisted on
additional equipment - armored jackets for shipping containers,
electronic countermeasures, and detectors for improvised
explosive devices," Mikulak told the OPCW's executive council.
"These demands are without merit, and display a 'bargaining
mentality' rather than a security mentality," he added.
MOOD IN CONGRESS
U.S. lawmakers voiced concern about the chemical weapons
delays but most did not think it would change the deep
reluctance of many members of Congress for more involvement in
Syria's civil war, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives.
The Obama administration seized upon the Russian chemical
weapons removal proposal last year as it became clear that ,
amid stiff resistance from both Republicans and Obama's fellow
Democrats, Congress would not grant the president the authority
to launch military strikes against Assad's forces.
"Unfortunately, most people don't care," said U.S. Senator
John McCain, an outspoken advocate of military aid to anti-Assad
rebels. "And that's the tragedy of it all."
Dennis Ross, a former Middle East adviser to Obama, said
he had always assumed "the Assad regime would have to be coerced
every step of the way to destroy its chemical weapons."
"The question will be whether the Russians will tolerate
Assad making them look bad," Ross said, suggesting the Syrian
president was stalling "to see what he can get away with."
Another option at Obama's disposal would be to push for
further sanctions against Syria. But this would have to be
supported in the U.N. Security Council by Russia and China,
which have so far refused to back such measures against Assad.
Under the deal, Syria has agreed to give up its entire
chemical stockpile by mid-2014. Deliveries so far, in two
shipments this month to Latakia, totaled 4.1 percent of the
roughly 1,300 tonnes of toxic agents reported by Damascus to the
OPCW, said the sources familiar with the matter.
Eradicating Syria's stockpile, including sarin, mustard gas
and VX, requires massive foreign funding and logistical support.
The bulk is to be destroyed on the Cape Ray, a U.S. cargo ship
now en route to the Mediterranean.
(Additional reporting by Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Jeff
Mason aboard Air Force One, Missy Ryan in Warsaw and Patricia
Zengerle in Washington; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by
Chizu Nomiyama and Tom Brown)