U.N. chief outlines plan to rid Syria of chemical weapons, but not war

UNITED NATIONS As Russia and the U.S. laud the initial progress made by international inspectors working to destroy Syria's chemical weapons and its ability to make more, the prospects for a much-touted international peace conference aimed at actually ending the civil war, which has already left more than 110,000 people dead, remain dim.

An advance team of 19 personnel from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and 16 U.N. personnel arrived is already three days into its arduous and dangerous task of destroying Syria's weapons.

On Monday evening -- meeting a 10-day deadline set out in the U.N. Resolution adopted to avoid a U.S. military strike on Syria by seeing the deadly chemicals destroyed -- U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sent a letter to the Security Council outlining the proposal for the completion of the U.N.-OPCW mission.

The plan must be authorized by the Council, which is likely to happen this week.

The letter from the Secretary General proposed a "joint mission" to add to the advance team and expand the staff of U.N. and OPCW personnel to 100 people during the next year. Ban reiterated the challenges laid out by the OPCW before it commenced work, noting that the difficult mission will have to be carried out "across active confrontation lines" in Syria's war with "significant operational and logistical challenges," including public health and environmental risks.

The advance team has already dodged two mortar attacks.

Destroying the estimated 1,000 tons of chemical weapons stockpiled in Syria "without poisoning anyone, is tricky," Dr. Richard Joseph Jackson, the Joan H. Tisch Distinguished Fellow in Public Health and Visiting Professor at Hunter College, said at a forum on Syria last week.

The goal is for the inspectors to complete their unprecedented work and destroy all Syria's chemical weapons and the means to produce more by mid-2014.

"Phase one" of the mission is the establishment of the OPCW-U.N. presence in Damascus and revising the initial list of chemical weapons provided by Syria. The letter sent on Monday laid out "phase two" to extend through the end of October, during which time the OPCW is to complete its initial inspection of all chemical weapons and storage facilities and establish a support base in Cyprus. "Phase three" will take place from November 1 until June 30, 2014, and will see the inspectors "monitor and verify the destruction" of the chemical weapons program.

But what about the war?

Equally important in the September U.N. resolution was the flagship commitment to a mid-November peace conference aimed at crafting a political transition in Syria to end the war. The proposed 6-step roadmap is based on the Geneva Communique, issued after the first gathering in the Swiss city in June 2012.

The resolution "sets out a number of key steps beginning with the establishment of a transitional governing body exercising full executive powers, which could include members of the present Government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent."

When the resolution passed, France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius personally confirmed the western-backed opposition Syrian National Coalition's "readiness to send a delegation as soon as possible," and said the "Syrian regime's supporters must make a similar commitment."

Meeting this week in Bali, Indonesia, on the sidelines of an Asian economic forum, Secretary of State John Kerry said he and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov had "discussed our mutual goal -- which we are extraordinarily focused on -- of ending the war in Syria through a political transition to a more broadly acceptable democratic government, under the terms of the Geneva Communique. We agreed, again, that there is no military solution here."

United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, also pinned much hope on Geneva II, calling on all parties to the Syrian conflict to engage in peace talks "without pre-conditions."

But no date is even set for the international conference, and Brahimi has indicated in several interviews that he is beginning to doubt that a November conference will even take place. In an interview with a French television station this week, Brahimi called the peace process "stalled."

The Assad government continues to refer to all opposition groups as "terrorists," and has yet to commit firmly to attend the hypothetical talks.

In an Istanbul news conference on Monday, meanwhile, the leader of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba, who previously said the SNC would participate in Geneva II, seemed to walk that commitment back.

"There shall be no dialogue with a criminal regime," said al-Jarba. "We do not reject participation in Geneva II, but we request guarantees for its success. And if we receive these guarantees we will show them to the military leaders," he added.

The Secretary General's Monday letter acknowledged that the U.N.-OPCW mission won't end the bloodshed.

On Monday evening, an Arab League Ambassador hinted at one of the biggest challenges facing the prospect of peace talks; a completely divided Syrian opposition.

"The Geneva talks will be very difficult. It is not yet determined if Assad is willing to send a delegation and not be involved himself, and the Syrian opposition is not 'an' opposition, it is 'oppositions,'" the diplomat told CBS News.

While the U.S. and its allies refer to the SNC (which is based in Turkey) and its military wing headed by the Supreme Military Council as "the" Syrian opposition, Islamic fundamentalist militias arguably represent the most potent rebel factions on the ground in Syria today -- and a conglomerate of 13 of those groups disavowed the SNC completely in a statement issued in late September. The rebels, led by the fundamentalist al-Nusra Front, said they would "not recognize" any future government formed outside Syria, and called instead for a new Syrian government with a "clear Islamic framework."

Martin Nesirky, spokesman for the U.N. Secretary-General, said Monday that Ban, "continues to believe" that Geneva II "can take place in mid-November, and it is his firm determination to seek to make that happen."

"Everybody knows that it is not easy, that it is going to be difficult to bring the sides to the table," he acknowledged.

  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.

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