Russia defends Assad, says deadline for chemical arms destruction viable

Steve Gutterman

By Steve Gutterman

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia rejected U.S. charges that Syria is dragging its feet on giving up chemical weapons and said on Friday that a June 30 deadline to destroy President Bashar al-Assad's arsenal of toxic agents remains viable despite delays.

The Syrian government is acting "in good faith" to eliminate its chemical weapons under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States, the Interfax news agency quoted Russian Foreign Ministry official Mikhail Ulyanov as saying.

The signal of support for Assad came after the United states blamed his government for delays in shipping toxic substances out of Syria for destruction under the September deal that helped Assad avoid potential U.S. air strikes.

The international operation to dispose of the stockpile is six to eight weeks behind schedule and next week's deadline for sending all toxic agents out on Syria will be missed, sources familiar with the matter have told Reuters.

Ulyanov, head of the Foreign Ministry's security and disarmament department, blamed the delays on security problems on the road to the port of Latakia and insufficient technical support from the outside world, Interfax reported.

"We see that the Syrians are approaching the fulfillment of their obligations seriously and in good faith," Ulyanov was quoted as saying. "We see no need to urge them on or force them into an overly strict framework."

"Our American partners, in their usual manner, are betting on pressure even in those cases where there is absolutely no need for it," he said.


U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asked Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on Wednesday to "do what he could to influence the Syrian government to comply".

Russia has been Assad's most powerful diplomatic backer during the nearly three-year-old conflict in Syria, using its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to block Western-backed efforts to push him from power or impose sanctions.

Despite sharp differences, Russia and the United States have joined forces to initiate peace talks now under way in Geneva and to press Syria to eliminate its chemical arsenal after a poison gas attack that killed hundreds near Damascus in August.

Ulyanov said the schedule for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, under which all toxic agents to be destroyed abroad were to be removed from the country by next week, was flawed and failed to take into account the situation there.

However, he said that "as before, the final deadline for completing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons - June 30 of this year - seems completely realistic", Interfax reported.

Ulyanov said the main reason for the delay was "the unfavorable security situation on the route for transporting chemical weapons components ... to Latakia", adding that there had been a rebel attack on a convoy this week.

"Also, the Syrians are complaining about insufficient material and technical support from the international community," he said.

He said Russia, which airlifted 50 trucks and 25 armored vehicles to Syria late last year to take chemical weapons components to Latakia, could provide more support, but said: "We cannot cover all their needs."

A U.S. official said on Wednesday that Syria had insisted on more equipment, including armored jackets for shipping containers and roadside bomb detectors. "These demands are without merit," the official said.

(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Alistair Lyon)