Inspectors begin mission to destroy Syria's chemical weapons

Team is part of effort to eliminate all weapons material and equipment in Syria by mid-2014

A convoy believed to be carrying a team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons leaves Beirut's international airport Sept. 30, 2013.
Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

A group of international inspectors assigned to start verifying and destroying Syria's estimated 1,000-ton chemical weapon stockpile — believed to include sarin, mustard gas and other banned chemicals stored at some two dozen sites — arrived in the country Tuesday to begin the mission endorsed by the United Nations Security Council in a resolution that was adopted last week.

Interactive: The humanitarian crisis in Syria 

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is overseeing the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2118, which includes a deal hashed out by the United States and Russia. 

Twenty inspectors from the watchdog group traveled to Damascus as the civil war in Syria, which has left more than 100,000 people dead over the last two and a half years, rages on. 

More than 2 million people have fled the country since the Syrian uprising began in 2011. The conflict has seen intense fighting between the government forces of President Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups, including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. 

A chemical attack in the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21, which the U.S. said was perpetrated by the Syrian government and left over 1,400 people dead, escalated tensions and brought the issue to the forefront for the international community.

'An ambitious timeline'

Under an OPCW executive-council decision, which is included in the U.N. Security Council resolution that was unanimously passed last week, the destruction of chemical-weapon-production equipment must be completed by Nov. 1.

The Security Council also agreed that inspectors should eliminate chemical weapon material and equipment from Syria by the first middle of 2014. 

It is the smallest window that the OPCW has faced in any nation and its first mission in a country at war.

"This is quite an ambitious timeline, and also the situation on the ground does complicate the mission, so it's quite challenging, and this is the most challenging mission we will undertake," said Ahmet Uzumcu, director-general of the OPCW.

This is quite an ambitious timeline, and also the situation on the ground does complicate the mission, so it's quite challenging, and this is the most challenging mission we will undertake.

Preparations at the OPCW in the Netherlands, where the group is based, have been meticulous.  

The Syrian government is thought to have gathered its chemical weapons at two dozen sites, but some of them are near positions where fighting continues to rage, Al Jazeera's Simon McGregor-Wood reported. 

Field teams of experts will have to wear body armor, helmets and protective suits at all times. Each member will carry a hand-held monitor to constantly test the environment, and medics will be on hand. 

"We are like soldiers in OPCW. When we got orders to go back, we will go back, and we will do a very good job there," said weapons inspector Ishaq Majali. 

Given the deadline, the inspectors will need cooperation from Syrian government experts and coordination with opposition forces to cross front lines and get the access needed to complete their mission, which will require delicate negotiation.

Peace talks in Geneva

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As inspectors got set to begin their work, Russia, a close ally of Assad, said Tuesday that the Syrian president could engage in peace talks with the more moderate elements of the armed opposition at a meeting in Geneva next month.

"I do not rule out that the armed opposition, if it does not stand for extremist or terrorist views, could very well be represented," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters. "By the way, this is something that President Assad has said as well."

World powers agreed last month to schedule the first direct negotiations between Assad's regime and the rebels in Geneva in mid-November. They are called the Geneva 2 talks because they follow a failed round of Syria negotiations among world powers in Geneva in June 2012.

Lavrov stressed that it was up to Western and Arab governments to make sure that representatives of the armed opposition agreed to attend Geneva 2 despite growing differences among their ranks.

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem told the U.N. General Assembly (PDF) on Monday that Damascus was fully committed to cooperating on chemical weapons but in return wanted the U.N. to support Syria's fight against the rebels.

"Syria has repeatedly announced that she embraces a political solution of its crisis. It is now for those who claim to support a political solution in Syria to stop all hostile practices and policies against Syria and to head to Geneva without preconditions," al-Muallem said. 

Al Jazeera and wire services

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