Chemical weapons officials say coordination with Syrian government has been ‘efficient’


A displaced Syrian woman comforts her one-month old grandchild inside a stone house near Kafer Rouma, in ancient ruins used as temporary shelter by families who have fled from the heavy fighting and shelling in the Idlib province countryside of Syria. (AP)

Syria’s government has been “businesslike and efficient” ahead of meetings this week to lay the groundwork for the destruction of the country’s chemical weapons, officials charged with overseeing the effort said Sunday.

Inspectors from the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said they would arrive in Damascus midday Tuesday and spend a week in the city before starting visits to chemical weapons facilities declared by the Syrian government. The OPCW officials said the details of the Syrian declaration appeared to line up with external intelligence assessments of what the government possesses, giving them optimism that the regime was being cooperative.

“It’s been good business so far,” said an OPCW official, speaking at a briefing for reporters under the condition of anonymity. “So far, our interactions with the Syrians have been very businesslike and efficient.”

Syrian President Bashar al-
Assad said Sunday that he was committed to living up to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which calls for a ban on chemical weapons possession and production. Under a plan approved last week by the U.N. Security Council, Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles are to be fully destroyed by the middle of next year.

“Of course we have to comply” with the treaty, Assad told Italian Rai News 24 television, according to a transcript of the interview published Sunday by the state-run, English-language Syrian Arab News Agency. “This is our history: to comply with every treaty that we sign.”

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 would have to refer the matter to its director general and to its 41-nation executive council.

If Syria does not live up to its commitment, it is likely to revive the threat of military action by the United States and its allies, heightening the stakes of any dispute.

One analyst said that if Syria is accused of possessing chemical weapons that it has not declared, it would put a severe strain on the OPCW, which usually operates within carefully set guidelines.

The OPCW’s dispatching inspectors into the middle of a civil war and dealing with a government that may not be telling the truth is “kind of like asking a weekend runner to run a sub-three-minute mile,” said Amy Smithson, a chemical weapons expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “The OPCW is very much accustomed to routine inspections.”

Another OPCW official said inspection teams may not even be able to reach every declared chemical weapons site because of security concerns. The inspectors will be working with unarmed U.N. security guards and under the protection of Syrian government forces, but significant portions of Syrian territory are not under the full control of Assad’s military.

“It may be that we are not in a position to go to some of these locations,” the official said. “We are not a military unit.”

The OPCW team, initially about 20 people, including engineers, chemists and paramedics with experience in treating victims of chemical attacks, will leave The Hague midday Monday and arrive in Damascus by midday Tuesday, the official said, declining to explain the time discrepancy.

He said OPCW officials charged with destroying Syria’s chemical weapons production capabilities by Nov. 1 will use “expedient methods” to fulfill their task.

“It might be a case of smashing something up with a sledgehammer. It might be a case of smashing something up with some explosive. It might be a case of driving a tank over something,” he said, or filling vessels with concrete, ruining valves and running bearings without oil so that they get stuck.

That won’t take long or cost much money, he said, but disposing of the chemicals themselves “is going to cost a lot.”

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