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Russia ought to be the one to destroy Syria's chemical weapons

Nov 21, 2013 - By The Chicago Tribune

The progress in destroying Syria's chemical weapons has been astonishingly swift and smooth. Teams from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have swarmed over the nearly two dozen declared sites. They've destroyed missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling equipment.

But even more complex and dangerous tasks loom:

Transporting huge stockpiles of chemicals by ground in the midst of the country's raging civil war. Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar Assad are supposed to help package, seal and safeguard the materials for transport out of the country, much of it by a Dec. 31 deadline. "No one has attempted this before in a civil war, and no one is willing to put troops on the ground to protect this stuff, including us," one senior American official told The New York Times. One fear is that terrorists, including a strong contingent of al-Qaida affiliated with the rebels, will attack convoys to seize control of the chemicals.

Destroying the 1,300-ton arsenal of volatile chemicals. Damascus doesn't have facilities to do that, and the world can't wait for years while they're built. So the stockpiles need to be moved to a nearby country willing to accept the challenge. So far, no takers. Last week, Albania denied an American request to do the job. Norway also has refused. The U.S. could do it but American laws do not allow the importation of these chemicals, the Times reports.

On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. and its allies were "actively pursuing two other alternatives," but did not give details.

Let's back up for a moment here. In August, when President Barack Obama threatened to strike Damascus to blunt its chemical weapons threat, Russian President Vladimir Putin and many other leaders around the world -- and in the U.S. Congress -- urged him to find a peaceful alternative. He stumbled into one. The U.S. and Russia reached a surprise deal that set some steep deadlines for Syria to relinquish its weapons. Amazingly, they're on schedule.

Now international officials need help to rid Syria -- the world -- of these terrible weapons. Sending these chemicals over long distances is dangerous. This is a job that needs to be done closer to home.

The most obvious candidate: Russia. The Russians have extensive experience in dismantling their own chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. But Moscow is reluctant, reportedly because it is behind schedule in destroying its own chemical arms.

So far, Putin reportedly has offered only technical support. He needs to do more.

Russia is Assad's staunch ally and one of the brokers of this deal. Putin has more to gain in ensuring these weapons are safely destroyed and more to lose if they are not. President Putin, time to ante up. You can't lead from behind on this.

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