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Insight: Assad's sarin and how an Albanian 'Yes' became 'No'

Demonstrators protest against the potential dismantling of Syrian chemical weapons in Albania in front of the Parliament in Tirana in this N
Demonstrators protest against the potential dismantling of Syrian chemical weapons in Albania in front of the Parliament in Tirana in this N

By Benet Koleka and Anthony Deutsch

TIRANA/THE HAGUE (Reuters) - On the evening of Monday, November 11, the U.S. ambassador to Tirana, Alexander Arvizu, met Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and his foreign minister at a government villa in the capital.

News had emerged that a favor was being asked by the United States, and an unprecedented backlash was building just two months into Rama's tenure.

Washington wanted Albania, a NATO ally of 2.8 million people, to host the destruction of 1,300 tonnes of Syrian nerve agents under a plan agreed with Russia to eliminate them from Syria's civil war.

Albania was an obvious choice. Dubbed the '51st State', the impoverished Adriatic republic is staunchly pro-American and was the first country in the world to eliminate its own communist-era chemical weapons in 2007, with Washington footing much of the $48 million bill.

Facing a November 15 deadline to finalize the plan, Arvizu and Rama talked until 1 a.m. The next day, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the U.S. embassy, chanting "No, no, no!"

At the last minute, with protests building, Rama blinked - the proposed deal undone by the same democratic forces that Washington had welcomed when communist rule fell.

"It is impossible for Albania to take part in this operation," Rama said in a televised address on Friday afternoon.

Albania's sudden refusal left U.S. diplomats scrambling for a Plan B to get the chemical weapons out of Syria within six weeks under a timetable agreed with President Bashar al-Assad's big-power backer, Russia.

The setback underscores the challenges facing a plan to extract sarin, mustard gas and other lethal nerve agents from a war zone, and the limits of American diplomacy. Rama meanwhile was accused of failing to pre-empt local opposition to the deal.

"It was possible to say 'Yes', Rama wanted to say 'Yes', but in the end it became impossible for him to say 'Yes'," said a senior Western diplomat. Like others interviewed for this article, the diplomat was not authorized to speak and so requested anonymity.

Through aides, both Rama and Arvizu declined to be interviewed by Reuters on the matter.

LOYALTY

Diplomatic sources say Rama knew Albania was in the mix as far back as September, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, agreed the plan in Geneva and averted threatened U.S. missile strikes following an August 21 sarin attack in a Damascus suburb.

Rama, just days in office, was keen to take part.

His predecessor, Sali Berisha, had worked hard to keep Washington's favor, taking in prisoners from the U.S. jail at Guantanamo Bay as President Barack Obama sought to close the facility, as well as hundreds of Iranian opposition exiles who had for years been holed up in Iraq.

In 2003, as training for the invasion of Iraq, Albania let U.S. warplanes bomb bunkers left over by the country's Stalinist leader, Enver Hoxha.

The loyalty stretches back to the end of World War One, when Woodrow Wilson saved Albania from being dismembered by its neighbors, through to 1999, when Bill Clinton took the lead in the NATO bombing of then-Yugoslavia to stop the slaughter of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo by Serbian forces under Slobodan Milosevic.

When George W. Bush visited Tirana in 2007, at the lowest ebb of his popularity at home and abroad, the president received a rock-star welcome, hugged and kissed by Albanians in Uncle Sam top hats.

"Even in Michigan, he wouldn't be as welcome," Rama, then in opposition, was quoted as saying at the time.

But even he knew accepting Assad's sarin would be a hard sell to the local population.

While nerve agents can be fairly quickly downgraded, the process can produce up to 15 times the volume in toxic waste. Such waste would take years to dispose of, and pose a risk to the environment if not cleaned up properly.

SWEETENER

A bohemian artist in his younger days, 49-year-old Rama had made his name as mayor of Tirana by giving the drab city a facelift with newly planted trees and bright paint daubed on downtown buildings.

When Berisha moved to open the country to lucrative waste imports in 2010, Rama was opposed and among his first decisions on becoming prime minister in September was to ban the practice.

The issue had tapped into a vein of resentment among some Albanians that their country was being exploited, treated as a garbage dump by its richer, cleaner allies in the West. There were also fears the Albanian mafia would get involved.

Rama would need a sweetener.

Though it is not known precisely what he discussed with Arvizu, the prime minister said later that the deal would have involved a U.S. promise to clean up dozens of environmental 'hotspots' in Albania, a legacy of Hoxha's rule and two decades of industrial complacency since his regime fell.

The benefit to the Albanian economy would have run to tens of millions of dollars. The clean-up would have fed into Albania's efforts to market itself as an emerging tourist destination on the Adriatic Sea, with great stretches of unspoiled sandy beaches.

But before Rama could break the news, reports emerged naming Albania as a possible destination for Syria's chemical arsenal.

Albania was first identified as a possible host on October 31 by Global Security Newswire, a news website focusing on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and security.

The report was picked up by the Albanian press over the next few days and Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati confirmed the possibility in an interview with Le Monde on November 4.

Environmentalists expressed alarm and youth groups took to Facebook to summon protests.

The opposition pounced, accusing Rama of secretly negotiating a deal that would put Albanians in harm's way.

One senior opposition figure branded Rama "Chemical Edi", evoking Saddam Hussein's cousin and power-broker Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali for ordering the 1988 gas attacks on Kurds in northern Iraq.

Suddenly Rama was on the back foot. He spoke by telephone with Secretary of State Kerry.

Diplomats and Albanian officials say both Rama and Arvizu, the U.S. ambassador, had not anticipated such a backlash. Rama, too, had failed to keep his coalition partner, Ilir Meta, and President Bujar Nishani in the loop.

"This was an easy job, just tough PR," a U.S. official said.

CONTAMINATION

As small but vocal protests took off, Albanian television aired a report from Qafe Molle, an army facility on the other side of a mountain from Tirana where the United States had helped dispose of 16 tonnes of Hoxha's chemical weapons six years ago.

The report showed villagers storing water in a blue plastic canister that the journalist said had once contained chemicals.

A U.S. embassy cable from May 2009 said containers left behind by U.S. contractors at the site were leaking arsenic, lead and mercury.

The cable was first leaked in 2010 and cited by Albanian media. It resurfaced this month, brandished at protests by environmentalists as a central element in their argument against the U.S. request.

At home, the United States has yet to eliminate its own chemical weapons. To date, it has spent $28 billion dollars on destroying 90 percent of its declared stockpile, and must spend another $10 billion to complete the job by 2023, many years behind schedule, according to the U.S. Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

U.S. efforts to prod other so-called 'possessor states' into destroying their own stockpiles have been dogged by political resistance and delays.

It has had similar problems in trying to secure and destroy - in cooperation with Russia - radioactive material left over from the Cold War at sites around the world, for fear it could fall into the hands of militants as an ingredient for crude bombs.

Transportation of such material is costly, requiring tight security and secrecy.

Rama suddenly appeared at a loss to explain the benefits of the deal, and at one point even said he would have joined the protests had he not been prime minister.

"If communication with the opposition and civil society had been good, this could have worked," the senior Western diplomat said. "The people in the street were the ones who had voted for him (Rama), and he found himself against a wall."

Even on Thursday evening, 24 hours before the deadline to agree the deal, Arvizu was on Albanian television defending the U.S. request. He said Washington would be "disappointed" if it was rejected. The next day it was.

Sources familiar with discussions at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, which is overseeing the plan, told Reuters this week that experts were now looking at the possibility of processing and destroying the weapons at sea, most likely in the Mediterranean.

Such a scenario may incur costs well in excess of the estimated hundreds of millions of dollars needed to dispose of the nerve agents on land, had Albania agreed.

"Perhaps both the Albanian and U.S. officials underestimated possible Albanian public opposition to a proposal to destroy bulk warfare agents and precursors on their soil," said a source briefed on the negotiations.

"Since considerable public opposition has overshadowed the U.S. chemical weapons destruction program for decades, this was a foreseeable problem."

(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Giles Elgood and Janet McBride)

(This story was refiled to edit the sixth paragraph)

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