International

Syria chemical weapons inspectors to start by disabling production

Inspectors outline their plan to smash, blow up and run over Syria's equipment for producing chemical weapons

Vehicles carrying U.N. experts investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria at the Lebanon-Syria border Monday.
AFP/Getty Images

Inspectors who will oversee Syria's destruction of its chemical weapons said their first priority is to help the country scrap its production facilities for such arms before a Nov. 1 deadline, using every means possible.

This may include smashing mixing equipment with sledgehammers, blowing up delivery missiles, driving tanks over empty shells or filling them with concrete and running machines without lubricant so they seize up and become inoperable, the inspectors said.

On Friday the U.N. Security Council ordered the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to help Syria destroy its estimated 1,000-ton chemical weapon arsenal by mid-2014. It also calls for consequences if Syria fails to comply, though the Security Council would have to pass another resolution to impose penalties.

"This isn't just extraordinary for the OPCW," said Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the organization. "This hasn't been done before — an international mission to go into a country which is involved in a state of conflict and amid that conflict oversee the destruction of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction which it possesses. This is definitely a historical first."

The teams will include chemists, military experts and medical personnel trained to deal with the hazards posed by chemical waste. The Syrian chemical weapon stash is thought to include mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin.

An advance group of 20 OPCW inspectors arrived in Beirut on Monday and will make their way to Damascus, Lebanese airport and security officials said.

Timothee Germain, a researcher at the Center for International Security and Arms Control in Paris, said that in the early phases of Syria's civil war, chemical weapons were consolidated at a small number of sites in order to keep them from falling into the hands of rebels. But when the prospect of a U.S. military strike emerged, the weapons may have been redistributed over more sites to preserve them.

"From a technical standpoint, it's really a long shot," he said, expressing skepticism that the current timeline could be achieved.

Syria's FM speaks at UN

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Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly Monday morning, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said Syria was committed to the implementation of the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and would cooperate with the OPCW. But he sharply criticized Western support of Syria's rebel groups. 

"Instead of settling regional and international conflicts by peaceful means, some known countries continued pursuing aggressive policies against certain nations. Political hypocrisy increased to intervene in the domestic affairs of states under the pretext of humanitarian intervention or the responsibility to protect," he said. 

Syria acknowledged for the first time it has chemical weapons after an Aug. 21 poison-gas attack killed hundreds of civilians in a Damascus suburb and President Barack Obama threatened to respond with a military strike. A U.N. investigation found that nerve gas was used in the attack but stopped short of blaming it on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

After a flurry of diplomatic negotiations involving the U.S., Syria and Syrian ally Russia, Damascus made an initial voluntary disclosure of its program to the OPCW. Under the organization's rules, the amounts and types of weapons in Syria's stockpiles and the number and location of the sites will not be publicly disclosed.

For two and a half years, Syria has been mired in conflict, which has often been described as a civil war, resulting in more than 100,000 deaths. Al-Muallem, however, said his country faced not a civil war but a "war against terror." 

"What is happening in my country has become clear to everyone. Yet some countries do not want to recognize that Al-Qaeda, the most dangerous terrorist organization in the world, and its many offshoots — like Jabhat Al-Nusrah, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the Brigade of Islam and many others — are fighting in Syria," al-Muallem said.

His comments and the OPCW's details of plans to destroy Syria's chemical weapons come as opposition activists reported Sunday that the regime carried out an airstrike on a high school in the rebel-held city of Raqaa, reportedly killing 16 people, most of them students.

The timing of the strike underscores the notion that while the international community is working to prevent gas attacks, little has been done to prevent the daily strikes and gun battles in Syria that have left thousands of civilians dead and caused some 2 million people to flee the country.

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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