Loyal US ally Albania asked to destroy Syria's chemical weapons

Loyal ally has been asked by America to take on the destruction of Bashar al-Assad's chemical arsenal, as others countries shy away

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 November, 2013, 10:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 November, 2013, 4:08am


For years, when the United States has needed to hand off a dirty diplomatic chore, one obscure nation has reliably raised its hand: Albania.

A poor sliver of a country clinging to the edge of Europe, Albania took in ethnic Uygur prisoners from Guantanamo Bay when the United States couldn't repatriate them to China. It offered asylum to 210 members of the Mujahedeen Khalq, the Iranian dissident group long confined to a camp in Iraq.

Now the United States is turning to Albania again, hoping it will allow Syria's chemical weapons to be destroyed on its soil.

The Obama administration's request to Albania, confirmed by government officials in Tirana last week, aims to resolve one of the thorniest questions surrounding the US-sponsored plan to disarm Syria's arsenal of sarin, VX and mustard gas.

With a civil war raging in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad wants his weapons - including 1,200 tonnes of chemical agents and precursors, and 1,100 tonnes of unfilled munitions - destroyed outside the country. The international watchdog agency overseeing the disarmament said removing the materiel from Syria "remains the most viable option".

The United States is leading the search for a country to take in the toxic stockpile. But few nations have been eager to volunteer for the task.

Another country that US officials asked to handle the job, Norway, has refused. And Danish officials said their country was willing to help transport weapons from Syria by sea, but not destroy them. Albanian officials said they were considering the request. The US State Department said no decisions had been made.

"There have been some positive signals from Albania, but it is a very sensitive issue there," said a European official with knowledge of the talks.

Albania has experience with chemical weapons. In 2007, with extensive US technical and financial help, the coastal Balkan nation became the first country to destroy its arsenal under the Chemical Weapons Convention, the treaty banning the production and use of the weapons.

Taking in  the weapons now, after a ban on … waste, is a tough sell

But after years of importing non-hazardous waste from richer neighbours such as Italy - a scheme that produced thousands of jobs and millions in revenue - Albanians decided they no longer wanted to be Europe's garbage dump. A new socialist government in Tirana recently imposed a ban on waste imports after a two-year campaign by environmental activists led to a referendum on the issue.

"Albania has been quite the yes man towards Washington, but taking in Assad's chemical stockpile will likely face more resistance," Besar Likmeta, Albania editor for the news website Balkan Insight, said. "Taking in the weapons now for destruction, after imposing a ban on non-hazardous waste, is a tough sell."

There also are serious questions about Albania's ability to secure dangerous materials. In 2008, an explosion at a munitions depot near the capital, where old artillery shells were being dismantled, killed 26 people and injured 300.

Much of the waste from its mustard gas programme remains stored in huge containers at an army facility near Tirana. Likmeta said that when he visited the base last week there was no guard in sight.

Polls rank Albania, with a majority of Muslims, among the most pro-American nations. The sentiment dates to President Woodrow Wilson, who backed Albanian independence after the first world war.

The United States ambassador to Tirana, Alexander Arvizu, said "all responsible Nato partners must find a way to contribute" to rid Syria of chemical weapons. It was a reminder, Likmeta said, that "all Albanian governments are susceptible to US pressure".