Syria hands "initial declaration" on chemical weapons to global watchdog

Syrian President Bashar Assad

THE HAGUE, Netherlands Syria has sent the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons an "initial declaration" outlining its weapons program, the organization said Friday.

Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the chemical weapons watchdog, told The Associated Press that the declaration is "being reviewed by our verification division." The organization will not release details of what is in the declaration.

Also on Friday, the the watchdog posted a "joint national paper" on its website that says the U.S. and Russia are committing "to prepare and submit in the next few days to the Executive Council of the OPCW a draft decision setting down special procedures for expeditious destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons program and stringent verification thereof."

U.S. officials said last week that the United States and Russia agreed that Syria had roughly 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons agents and precursors, including blister agents, such as sulfur and mustard gas and nerve agents like sarin.

In the aftermath of the U.N. report that concluded sarin had been used in an attack in Damascus last month, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which polices the treaty outlawing chemical weapons, is looking at ways to fast-track moves to secure and destroy Syria's arsenal of poison gas and nerve agents as well as its production facilities.

However, diplomatic efforts to speed up the process are moving slowly. A meeting initially scheduled for Sunday at which the organization's 41-nation executive council was to have discussed a U.S.-Russian plan to swiftly rid Syria of chemical weapons was postponed Friday, and no new date was immediately set. No reason was given for the postponement.

Under a U.S.-Russia agreement brokered last weekend in Geneva, inspectors are to be on the ground in Syria by November. During that month, they are to complete their initial assessment and all mixing and filling equipment for chemical weapons is to be destroyed.

All components of the chemical weapons program are to be removed from the country or destroyed by mid-2014.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons plan of action will be backed up by a U.N. Security Council resolution, and negotiations remain underway on the text of such a resolution.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he talked to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, about Syria's chemical weapons early Friday.

"I had a fairly long conversation with Foreign Minister Lavrov," Kerry said in Washington. "We talked about the cooperation which we both agreed to continue to provide, moving not only toward the adoption of the OPCW rules and regulations, but also a resolution that is firm and strong within the United Nations. We will continue to work on that."

Kerry said Thursday that the U.N. inspectors' report on an Aug. 21 attack in the Damascus suburbs "confirms unequivocally that chemical weapons...were used in Syria."

"And despite the regime's best efforts" to destroy the evidence," he added, U.N. investigators "returned with several crucial details that confirm that the Assad regime is guilty of carrying out that attack, even though that was not the mandate of the U.N. report."

The Assad regime, and its backers in Russia, have claimed it was rebel forces who launched the attack on the eastern Ghouta suburbs, whereas the U.S. and its allies insist only the Syrian military has the capacity to carryout such a large-scale attack with sarin gas.