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Syria can eliminate chemical arms despite war: top U.S. officer

General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presents the administration's case for U.S. military action against Syria
General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presents the administration's case for U.S. military action against Syria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Syrian government still has effective control of its chemical weapons and should be able to transfer them to international inspectors for destruction despite the ongoing civil war, the top U.S. military officer said on Wednesday.

Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged the conflict in Syria posed "a very challenging environment" for eliminating the weapons under a framework agreement reached by the United States and Russia.

"Indicators are at this point, though, that the regime does have control of its stockpile," Dempsey told a Pentagon news conference. "So long as they agree to the framework, which causes them to be responsible for the security, the movement, the protection of the ... inspectors, then I think ... it is feasible."

Dempsey said he was still concerned about the security of the stockpile, but added: "We've got to make sure we keep our eye on all these things."

"The framework calls for it to be controlled, destroyed or moved," he said. "And I think in some combination ... it is feasible. But those details will have to be worked out" by the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, which has the lead on the issue.

Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who also attended the news conference, both said they were comfortable with the diplomatic process to try to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons.

President Barack Obama had been poised to order a strike against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, charging that Syrian forces had launched a wide-scale attack using sarin gas in a Damascus neighborhood, killing some 1,400 people, including hundreds of children.

Syria, at the urging of Russia, agreed in a last-minute diplomatic opening to join the convention banning chemical weapons and to hand over its arms to international inspectors.

"In terms of ... direct threats to U.S. interests, I think ... that the elimination of the Assad regime's chemical capability is right at the top," Dempsey said. "So if this process bears fruit and achieves its stated purpose, we will be in a better position."

Hagel said the diplomatic track was a "responsible, wise approach," but he said the threat of U.S. force against Syria had helped lead to diplomacy and should remain in place until an agreement is finalized.

(Reporting by David Alexander and Phil Stewart; Editing by David Storey)

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