Chemical weapons inspectors say they can meet tough deadline in Syria

Syria is winning foreign praise for agreeing to disarm its chemical weapons. But how do you find and destroy these weapons in an unstable country? Joel Rubin from the Ploughshares Fund explains. (The Washington Post)

The inspectors charged with overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons said Wednesday that security will be a challenge in their work but that they still thought it was possible to meet a Nov. 1 deadline to eliminate the country’s ability to produce the banned arms.

The top official of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Wednesday that nine days into their mission in Syria, his inspectors were dependent on the Syrian government and the United Nations to provide them with security as they travel to the more than 20 sites that Syria has said it used for its chemical weapons program. Not all of the sites are fully within Syrian government control, OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu said at a news conference in The Hague, where the organization is based.

“Much depends also on the situation on the ground. The safety and security of our experts is, of course, an overriding concern,” Uzumcu said.

“If we can ensure some cooperation by all parties” and a temporary cease-fire in areas where the inspectors are working, “I think the targets could be reached,” he said. The inspectors have visited one site since arriving in Damascus on Oct. 1 and were to visit a second Wednesday, Uzumcu said.

Some Syrian rebel leaders have criticized the U.S.- and Russia-brokered deal to destroy the chemical weapons, saying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s cooperation is merely a ploy to enable him to keep fighting the opposition using non-chemical means.

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Under the terms of the deal approved by the U.N. Security Council late last month, a joint OPCW-U.N. team must destroy Syria’s chemical weapons production facilities by Nov. 1 and its chemical stockpiles by mid-2014 — an accelerated schedule even by non-wartime standards. Syria is estimated to possess about 1,000 tons of chemical agents.

OPCW officials said they were sending a 12-member group to Damascus on Wednesday to supplement the initial team that arrived there this month. In total, the organization expects that the number of inspectors needed to carry out the work will be in the “tens,” not hundreds, said Malik Ellahi, a political adviser to Uzumcu. He said the precise numbers will depend on what kind of plan is reached to destroy the chemical arsenal.

One quick method to take the stockpiles out of Assad’s reach would be to move them out of Syria, a step that would contravene the Chemical Weapons Convention, and officials on Wednesday gave no concrete signals that they were planning to do so.

But because much of Assad’s chemical stock is in precursor form — it would have to be mixed with other chemicals to be weaponized — the OPCW expects that neutralizing them, most probably by adding water and other agents, would be the preferred method of destruction. The other common disposal method is incineration.

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