THE HAGUE – Inspectors who will oversee Syria’s destruction of its chemical weapons said Sunday their first priority is to help the country scrap its ability to manufacture such arms by a Nov. 1 deadline — using every means possible.
The chemical weapons inspectors said that 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.
On Friday, the U.N. Security Council ordered the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to help Syria destroy its chemical weapons by mid-2014.
On Sunday, inspectors met with media in The Hague to explain their current plan of action, which included an initial group of 20 that was to leave for Syria on Monday.
The organization allowed two inspectors to speak on condition of anonymity out of concern for their safety amid Syria’s civil war; both are veteran members of the OPCW. Spokesman Michael Luhan said the men “are going to be deeply involved in Syria.”
“This isn’t just extraordinary for the OPCW. 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,” Luhan said. “This is definitely a historical first.”
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 U.S. President Barack Obama threatened a military strike in retaliation. A U.N. investigation found that nerve gas was used in the attack but stopped short of blaming it on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
After a flurry of diplomatic negotiations involving the U.S., Syria, and Syrian ally Russia, Syria made an initial voluntary disclosure of its program to the Hague-based OPCW. Under 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.
The U.S. and Russia agree that Syria has roughly 1,000 tons of chemical weapons agents and precursors, including blister agents such as sulfur and mustard gas, and nerve agents like sarin. External experts say they are distributed over 50 to 70 sites.
One of the OPCW experts with a military background said the “open source” information about the Syrian program is “reasonable.”
Timothee Germain, a researcher at the Center for International Security and Arms Control in Paris, who is not involved with the OPCW project, said that in the early phases of Syria’s civil war, chemical weapons were consolidated into 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 a larger number of sites to preserve them.
He added that he is skeptical the current timeline can be achieved. “From a technical standpoint, it’s really a long-shot,” he said.
The investigators said members of the initial group of 20 will meet with counterparts from Syria’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday and begin planning. A week later, the OPCW mission will be expanded to a larger number of investigators who will arrive in waves and begin visiting sites and disabling equipment. At the same time, they will be examining sites for their suitability as places to eventually destroy chemicals and ready-to-fire weapons, which is usually done by incineration.
“At this stage we’re looking at tens of inspectors” for the mission, the OPCW military expert said. The teams will include chemists, military experts and medical personnel trained to deal with the hazards posed by chemical waste.
Protection for OPCW staff will be provided primarily by the Syrian government, with support from the U.N., which has a long-standing working relationship with the OPCW and lines of communication open with rebel groups.
The OPCW expert said access to weapons sites in or near rebel-held territory would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, with the U.N. possibly helping negotiate safe passage. “It may be that we are not in a position to go to some of these places,” he said. “Our inspectors are all volunteers. This is not a mission that will be carried out come what may.”
After the initial phase of destroying Syria’s ability to manufacture weapons, the actual destruction phase will take far longer and be more expensive, the second expert said.
OPCW officials said that Syria’s government has been “businesslike and efficient” ahead of the meetings this week. The officials said the details of the Syrian declaration appear to line up with external intelligence assessments of what the government possesses, giving them optimism that the regime is being cooperative.
“It’s been good business so far,” an OPCW official said. “So far, our interactions with the Syrians have been very businesslike and efficient.”
Assad said Sunday that he is committed to living up to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which calls for a ban on chemical weapons possession and production. But OPCW officials acknowledged that many practical and political challenges lie ahead. The OPCW does not have extensive experience in dealing with governments that do not fully detail their chemical weapons. If another government alleges that it has discovered Syrian chemical weapons that are not in the official rolls, an OPCW official said, the agency will have to refer the matter to its director-general and to its 41-nation executive council.
One analyst said that if Syria is accused of possessing chemical weapons that it has not declared, it will put a severe strain on the OPCW, which usually operates within carefully set guidelines.