Syrian army retakes road needed to ship out chemical arms
BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have taken control of a highway connecting Damascus to the coast that is needed to extract hundreds of tons of toxic chemicals for destruction, state television said on Monday.
Russia said it could provide transport for the chemicals to get them to the port of Latakia for removal.
Nevertheless, Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the global chemical weapons watchdog, said it would be hard to remove all of Syria’s deadliest chemical arms from the country by a December 31 deadline.
Fighting in Syria poses a major hurdle to efforts by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to eliminate the government’s chemical arsenal.
The army started an offensive in mid-November to secure the highway, which passes through the mountainous area of Qalamoun, roughly 50 km (30 miles) north of Damascus, stretches along the Lebanese border and hosts many military bases and outposts.
The army has retaken the highway towns of Qara and Deir Attiyah from mostly Sunni Muslim rebels fighting to oust Assad and on Monday state TV broadcast footage from the town centre of Nabak which it said was captured from “terrorists” on Monday.
Rami Abdulrahman, head of the anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, said the highway remained vulnerable to rebel attack despite opposition losses.
Rebels in the area did not respond to requests for comment.
Syria has agreed under a deal arranged by the United States and Russia to dismantle its chemical arsenal and destroy all its 1,300 metric tons (1433 ton) of sarin, mustard gas and other lethal agents.
The agreement averted threatened U.S. missile strikes after a sarin gas attack killed hundreds near Damascus in August.
The size of the stockpile requires it to be transported by land and sea, using roads linking Damascus and other areas to the Mediterranean port of Latakia, a government stronghold.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said that Moscow, which has given Assad weapons supplies and diplomatic support, could help with the chemical arms transfer.