Inspectors from obscure agency ready to destroy Syrian chemical weapons

The phone calls have been overwhelming and the late nights unusual at a quiet organization charged with an unprecedented task: disarming Syria of its chemical weapons in the middle of a civil war.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will send a team of inspectors to Damascus on Monday, and its success or failure could shape whether the United States and its partners push once again to intervene militarily in Syria. The tiny organization, which just six weeks ago was accustomed to calmer work overseeing the destruction of Cold War-era stockpiles of American and Russian weaponry, has had to shift to war footing as it prepares to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons in a matter of months.

Among the questions that remain are whether the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has fully declared its stockpile; whether the inspectors will be secure in dangerous territory where control is fluid; and whether the team can meet ambitious timetables, approved Saturday, under which it must destroy Syria’s capability to produce chemical weapons by Nov. 1 and eliminate all chemical and munitions stockpiles by July 1. Such efforts usually take years.

Critics say that the agency’s consensus-driven approach to resolving conflicts about disclosures may move too slowly for a fast-moving situation and that it has little experience doing detective work when weapons are hidden.

But officials at the 16-year-old agency, housed in a building in The Hague that looks like a round of Edam cheese missing a wedge, say they are up for the challenge.

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“People are still getting their heads around being in the global limelight,” said Michael Luhan, the OPCW’s sole spokesman, who juggled three phones for hours on a recent day as hundreds of journalists called to ask for details about Syria’s surprise enumeration of its chemical weaponry. “If this is not an example of building a plane and flying it at the same time, I don’t know what is.”

Not a 24-7 organization

The OPCW is tasked with implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention, which took effect in 1997 and requires the elimination of all chemical weapons by the 189 states — 190 including Syria — that are party to the agreement. That work has taken inspectors to unstable countries such as Libya and Iraq.

Most of the efforts, however, have been devoted to overseeing the slow, methodical destruction of vast stores of American and Russian weaponry, along with inspecting chemical plants around the world to ensure that they are not being used to produce new weapons. Improvising under live fire typically has not been the agency’s task. Most plans are made a year in advance.

“It’s kind of a 9-to-5 organization, in a way. It’s not a 24-7 organization, and it’s going to have to adapt to that,” said Faiza Patel, a former senior policy officer at the OPCW. “The organization is not really set up to be an investigative organization,” unlike the U.N. investigators who were sent to Iraq in the 1990s, she said. “It’s set up to do routine inspections that are based on the declarations that the states provide.”

A ‘body of nerdish people’

But analysts praise the agency’s technical capabilities and expertise. OPCW officials were part of the U.N. inspection team that was in Damascus on Aug. 21 when a chemical weapons attack took place on the city’s outskirts. They visited the site five days later — coming under fire along the way — and interviewed survivors and took samples and weapons measurements, all under a tight deadline. Then they produced a report in three weeks.

“It’s this body of nerdish people who go out in gumboots and collect chemical samples, and go into factories and oversee the destruction of chemical weapons,” said Patricia Lewis, research director for international security at Chatham House in London and former director of the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research. “They were in this backwater of The Hague, and they were getting along quietly, fulfilling their mandate.”

She added: “They’re very good. They’re very professional.”

Now the organization, which has long operated in the shadow of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, is looking to bulk up quickly. It has 125 inspectors on staff and plans to call retirees back into service as it establishes a presence in Syria. The Syrian delegation will come from existing ranks for now, officials said, but the resolution passed Saturday by the OPCW’s executive council calls for the agency’s expansion. Its budget this year is $95 million, paid by member countries.

Officials were preparing Saturday for a multi-ton airlift of equipment and personnel — about 20 inspectors and support staff — according to an OPCW official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive logistics. Supplies and employees are scheduled to land in Damascus on Monday, and inspectors are to start work Tuesday. Site inspections will begin in about a week.

Means of destruction

The inspectors’ first task will be to check the sites and munitions against the Syrian government’s declaration, the official said. Other staff members will set up a headquarters in Damascus. The inspectors will then oversee the rapid destruction of equipment used to produce chemical weapons, something analysts said could be done with sledgehammers, buzz saws and bulldozers.

Destruction of chemical materiel will take longer and is more complicated, especially in the middle of a war, officials said. The job will be easier than it could have been because much of the chemical materiel is not in weaponized form, U.S. and OPCW officials have said.

One method is to incinerate the chemicals, analysts said. Another is to use hydrolysis to render the chemicals less dangerous. The fastest method would be to remove the stores from Syria and destroy them at a slower pace, but moving chemical weapons across state borders is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention.

“The convention was never written for the environment that we find ourselves in,” the OPCW official said.

“At this stage, there are clearly things that we’d like to do that we can’t,” the official added. “But nothing is off the table, apart from things like just dumping it in the ground.”

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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