Russia-U.S. Tensions Could Stall Syrian Chemical Weapons Removal : Parallels Under international agreement, the chemicals were to be destroyed aboard a U.S. ship escorted by Russian naval vessels. As the two nations square off over Crimea, that collaboration is over for now.

Russia-U.S. Tensions Could Stall Syrian Chemical Weapons Removal

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This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. We're going to look now at how a crisis in one part of the world might affect another. The U.S. and Russia are at a standoff over Ukraine, but they're supposed to be cooperating in the Middle East over Iran's nuclear program and the plan to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons. More about Iran in a minute but first, Syria.


SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: The United States and Russia are committed to the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons in the soonest and safest manner.

SIMON: And that was Secretary of State Kerry announcing the plan last fall, along with Russian's foreign minister. This week, a milestone of a kind was reached. Syria has now handed over half of its chemical weapon stocks for disposal. Will the disagreement between Russia and the U.S. over Russia's move into Crimea stall that process? NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The U.S.-Russian plan for Syria was both ambitious and unusual.

PAUL WALKER: It's one of the unique instances where both Russia and the United States have come together in a very cooperative way to work on a common goal.

BRUMFIEL: That's Paul Walker, a chemical weapons expert with Green Cross International. Russia has strong ties with the Syrian regime, and supplies it considerable military hardware to fight its ongoing civil war. Walker says the Russians got Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to go along with the plan.

WALKER: When the Russians say step up and join the chemical weapons convention, you know, Bashar al-Assad pretty much salutes and says yes, sir.

BRUMFIEL: Syria pledged to remove its most dangerous chemicals by the end of last year, but then it started to stall. Assad said security was the problem, but Western observers suspect he was dragging his feet, drawing out the process to keep America from interfering with the war. Amy Smithson, with the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, says Russia broke the impasse. In December, it sent dozens of armored trucks to carry the chemicals out of Syria. The trucks addressed Assad's security concerns, but they also send a message.

AMY SMITHSON: To me, that was a very clear signal: Don't drag your feet too much in moving this stuff to port.

BRUMFIEL: Since January, Syria has been loading chemicals onto international ships, but just as the process hit the halfway point, U.S.-Russian relations hit a new low. The U.S. has condemned Russia's decision to annex the Ukrainian region of Crimea. The two nations imposed tit-for-tat sanctions over the past week. Syria still isn't in a rush to give up its chemicals. Andrew Tabler, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says it's the government's insurance policy.

ANDREW TABLER: Remember that the usefulness of the Assad regime drops off significantly after those chemical weapons are destroyed because we no longer need the Assad regime around to secure their safety.

BRUMFIEL: He says without Russian pressure, shipments may slow.

TABLER: I think what you're likely to see is that the Assad regime will comply just enough at a slower pace, as it consolidates its hold over the country militarily.

BRUMFIEL: Syria hasn't slowed down yet, but cooperation between the U.S. and Russia is showing strain. Toxic agents are supposed to be destroyed aboard a U.S. ship. The Russian navy was prepared to provide an escort. Now, plans for that escort are on hold. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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