NEW YORK — U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday night outlined his plan for the establishment of a chemical weapons mission with about 100 technical specialists, administrators and security officers to destroy Syria’s nerve agent program, marking the first time that the United Nations has carried out such a task in the midst of a civil war.
The team, to be made up of U.N. political and security officers as well as technical experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, will set up its staging area in Cyprus, maintaining only “a light footprint” in Syria, Ban said in a 10-page letter to the U.N. Security Council. Its mission will be to destroy the Syrian chemical program — including more than 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, agents and precursors — by June 30.
The U.N. plan, which will require approval by the Security Council, is designed to implement an agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons that was brokered by the United States and Russia and endorsed by the council and the OPCW’s executive board. The United Nations has sent an advance team of 35 to Damascus to begin dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons program; the team is using “cutting torches and angle grinders to destroy or disable” some “missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling equipment,” Ban said.
But the operation will need to scale up rapidly in the coming weeks to handle the task. And Ban wrote that he would appoint a senior official, or “special coordinator,” to manage the mission’s operations, after consultations with the director general of the OPCW. And he said the United Nations and the OPCW would move “as soon as possible” to conclude a status-of-forces agreement with Syria to govern the terms of their work in the country.
In his letter, Ban detailed the enormous security challenges that the United Nations has confronted in Syria. Just hours before the advance team arrived in Damascus, two mortars shells landed near their hotel. Conditions are “dangerous and volatile, particularly in urban areas such as Damascus, Homs and Aleppo,” Ban wrote. “Heavy artillery, air strikes, mortar barrages and the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas are commonplace and battle lines shift quickly.”
U.N. officials have voiced concern in private about the challenges of securing Syrian cooperation, noting that the country has earlier delayed visas for U.N. personnel and held up the import of communications and security equipment for previous international missions. So far, Ban said, Syria has ‘fully cooperated” with the advance team. But, he added, “without sustained, genuine commitment by the Syrian authorities the joint mission will fail in its objectives.” Such cooperation would require the “provision for immediate and unfettered access to sites and personnel,” he said.
According to Ban’s plan, the inspections will be carried out in three phases, beginning with an assessment of Syria’s declarations of its chemical weapons program and a preliminary inspection of the country’s chemical weapons production facilities. In the second phase, which will be concluded by Nov. 1, the inspectors will oversee the destruction of all of Syria’s chemical weapons production and mixing and filling equipment. In the final, and “most difficult and challenging,” phase, the inspectors will be “expected to support, monitor and verify the destruction of a complex chemical weapons program involving multiple sites over a country engulfed in violent conflict.”
Ban acknowledged that the United Nations and the OPCW may lack the means to fulfill the task on their own and appealed to governments to provide “financial, material, technical and operational assistance.” He also urged countries with influence over the warring parties to urge the combatants to “ensure the safety, security and exclusively international character of the joint mission and its personnel.”
But even while Ban welcomed the “historic step” of eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons, he conceded that the campaign to contain one of the world’s deadliest weapons program would not end the suffering in the country, where more than 100,000 people have died since 2011, the majority killed by conventional weapons used by the regime led by President Bashar al-Assad.
“I am fully aware that the destruction of the chemical weapons program in Syria alone will not bring an end to the appalling suffering inflicted on the Syrian people. The only way to bring peace back to this country and its people is an inclusive political process,” he wrote. “I have emphasized time and again that there can be no military solution to the problems of Syria.”