| UNITED NATIONS, April 25
UNITED NATIONS, April 25 Syria maintains an
ability to deploy chemical weapons, diplomats say, citing
intelligence from Britain, France and the United States that
could strengthen allegations Syria's military recently used
chlorine gas in its bloody civil war.
The comments reflect a growing conviction among Western
capitals that President Bashar al-Assad has failed to come clean
about Syria's chemical weapons program despite his promises to
end it, and they insist the United States and its allies will
resist calls by Assad to shut down a special international
chemical disarmament mission set up to deal with Syria.
Syria denies it maintains the capacity to deploy chemical
weapons, calling the allegation a U.S. and European attempt to
use their "childish" policies to blackmail Assad's government.
But in a tacit acknowledgement of the original declaration's
incompleteness, Syria earlier this month submitted a more
specific list of its chemical weapons to the international
disarmament mission after discrepancies were reported by
inspectors on the ground, officials said.
Under threat of U.S. airstrikes, Assad agreed with the
United States and Russia in September to dispose of his chemical
weapons - an arsenal that Damascus had never previously formally
acknowledged - after hundreds of people were killed in a sarin
gas attack in August on the outskirts of the capital.
Washington and its Western allies said it was Assad's forces
who unleashed the sarin attack, the world's worst chemical
attack in a quarter-century. The government blamed the rebel
side in Syria's civil war, which is now in its fourth year.
The verification of Syria's declaration on its poison gas
arsenal and its destruction has been overseen by a joint team of
the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of
Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the global chemical arms watchdog.
Diplomats say Western governments have long suspected Syria
did not declare all aspects of its chemical arms program. But
the envoys say they have kept silent on the issue to avoid
giving Assad an excuse to curtail cooperation with the U.N.-OPCW
mission and slow down an already delayed timetable for shipping
toxins out of the country.
With more than 90 percent of Syria's declared chemical
stockpiles now out of the country, Western officials have
started to break their silence.
"We are convinced, and we have some intelligence showing,
that they have not declared everything," a senior Western
diplomat told Reuters, adding that the intelligence had come
from Britain, France and the United States.
When asked how much of its program Syria has kept hidden,
the diplomat said: "It's substantial." He offered no details.
AMBIGUITIES AND DISCREPANCIES
Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari dismissed the charge.
"These countries aren't really reliable and their policies
towards the implementation of the agreement between the Syrian
government and the OPCW aren't principled but rather childish,"
he said in a mobile-phone text message to Reuters.
"If they have some evidence they must share it with the OPCW
rather than pretending to have secret evidence!"
Ja'afari said the three Western powers' goal was to
needlessly extend the U.N.-OPCW mission by "keeping the
'chemical file' open indefinitely so that they can keep exerting
pressure and blackmailing the Syrian government."
Another Western official, who also spoke on condition of
anonymity, told Reuters that while there was not 100 percent
certainty Syria maintains chemical weapons, the three Western
powers agreed that there is a "high level of probability" that
Syria deliberately under-reported the full extent of its
chemical arms-related stockpiles.
He cited examples of large batch of a sarin precursor
chemical going missing in Syria and Damascus' unverified claims
to have destroyed most of its mustard gas stocks before the
U.N.-OPCW mission arrived in the country and other anomalies.
In interviews over the last two months with Western
officials with access to intelligence about Syria, Reuters
learned that topics of concern include deadly nerve agent ricin,
mustard gas, precursor chemicals used to make sarin, and, more
recently, the use of chlorine gas in Syria.
U.S. and British officials have also spoken of ambiguities
and problems with the Syrian chemical weapons declaration. U.S.
officials warned as early as November that intelligence
suggested Syria may try to hide some toxins.
Suspicions that its declaration was incomplete deepened when
Syria did not report to the OPCW having sarin, which was used in
the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21, or the type of rockets
used to deliver an estimated 300 liters of the toxin.
The senior Western diplomat said Britain, France and the
United States had provided information to the OPCW months ago,
including on specific undeclared chemical weapons sites. He
added that the three powers had also provided Assad's staunch
ally Russia with the intelligence but "they have not reacted."
The OPCW had no immediate comment when queried. A Russian
U.N. mission spokesman said he had no comment, though Moscow
reiterated on Friday its position that claims about the Syrian
government using chemicals weapons were false.
(Additional reporting by Anthony Deutsch in The Hague, Michelle
Nichols in New York, Mark Hosenball and Phil Stewart in
Washington; Edited by Jason Szep and Lisa Shumaker)