OPCW inspectors plan to smash Syria chemical weapons-making ability by start of November

Spokesman Michael Luhan gives a brief statement outside the headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, in The Hague, Netherlands, Sept. 27, 2013. AP

THE HAGUE The international organization to be tasked with finding, cataloguing and destroying the Syrian government's chemical weapons said Sunday it would send a "forward team" of inspectors to Damascus with the initial goal of ensuring President Bashar Assad's regime is rendered unable to produce more deadly toxins by the first day of November.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said the 20-strong team would arrive in Damascus before embarking on the mission that, according to officials, could see the "key equipment of production, mixing and filling" warheads with chemical agents destroyed by means as low-tech as a sledgehammer or by draining machinery of oil so it seizes up.

Tanks could also be used to crush artillery shells, while some might be covered in concrete to render them useless. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said conventional explosives could also be used in the race to deny Assad's forces the means to produce chemical weapons in less than a month.

"In the early stages, time is going to be of the essence," said the officials, adding that the most pressing part of their mission would be "to render unusable chemical weapons production capability and facilities," to remove the risk of non-conventional weapons from the battlefield in Syria's two-and-a-half year war.

They said it would be the Syrian government's responsibility to provide security for the team as it visits the relevant facilities, noting that the OPCW inspectors' task of entering a "hot war zone" was "a historical first" for the organization.

"We have been given a clear mandate," said the officials. "The task being presented to us has the confidence of the world."

The OPCW's mandate comes from a Resolution passed unanimously by the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council on Friday, after two weeks of tense negotiations between Russia -- an ally to President Assad -- and the U.S. and its European allies.

After the Security Council passed the resolution, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the "strong, enforceable, precedent-setting" agreement showed that diplomacy could be powerful enough to "defuse the worst weapons of war."

Kerry said the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile -- estimated to include some 1,000 tons of deadly chemical agents -- would begin in November and be completed by the middle of 2014.

OPCW officials told reporters in The Hague that the number of inspectors would rise steadily as their mission widened to include the destruction of the chemical stockpiles.

The final number of inspectors that were to be in the war-torn country was still unclear, even to the OPCW, but officials said the figure would likely be "in the tens."

The inspectors' "command element" was to be based in Damascus, but teams "might well come into Syria through other routes," said the officials, depending on the locations of the weapons storage and development sites.

The OPCW said the forward team had already started its "engagement" with Syrian authorities, who have made an "initial declaration"of their chemical weapons program earlier this month.

A formal declaration of the program was expected in the coming days.

OPCW officials described their contacts with the Syrian government thus far as, "very business-like and efficient."

In an interview with Italy's RAI News 24 TV aired on Sunday, Assad said his government would fully comply with the terms of the U.N. Resolution.

"Of course we have to comply," he said. "This is our history to comply with every treaty we sign."

While fierce Russian opposition to any military threat against Syria kept an explicit use-of-force clause out of the Security Council Resolution adopted Friday night, the language of the agreement says that, should any party in Syria fail to abide by its terms, the potential ramifications could include military action.

  • Steve Berriman

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