BEIRUT — Personnel overseen by a team of international monitors took blowtorches and high-speed saws to Syria’s chemical weapons equipment Sunday, the first step on the road to dismantling what is thought to be one of the world’s largest arsenals of the weapons of mass destruction.
The destruction of mixing equipment, missile warheads and aerial bombs was carried out by a team of Syrians under supervision from experts from the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the United Nations said in a statement.
The mission, which received the backing of a U.N. Security Council resolution last week, faces a daunting task, dealing with a tight timetable and facing the added logistical and security challenges of working in the midst of a raging civil war. The 20-member advance team has been quick to get to work since arriving in Damascus on Tuesday.
The pressing schedule sees the elimination of Syria’s ability to produce chemical weapons by the beginning of November, before the complete destruction of its stockpiles within nine months.
“It's not insignificant that within days of the passing of this resolution in New York, inspectors are in Syria,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Monday in Bali, Indonesia. “They are on the ground now. They are already proceeding to the destruction of chemical weapons. That actually began yesterday. The process has begun in record time, and we are appreciative for the Russian cooperation, as well as the Syrian compliance to this date.”
Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose nations support opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, jointly backed the weapons deal. They met in Bali on Monday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to review the initial weapons work.
Divisions between the United States and Russia over Syria were also on display, despite a beachside walk the two ministers took before a press conference, and warm handshakes and whispered asides during it.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a longtime Russian ally, and Russia has acted as his main international advocate since the civil war began. The United States insists Assad has lost legitimacy as a leader.
Kerry was cautious in welcoming what he called a “good beginning” but said Syrian cooperation must continue. Lavrov replied that there is no reason to think otherwise, and added that unlike the U.S.-backed opposition, Assad is ready to come to a United Nations-sponsored peace conference.
Lavrov said he hopes the long-delayed conference can happen in mid-November. It would help, he said, if the opposition groups could “speak with one voice,” and commit to attending. Most of the fractured opposition is chary of bargaining with Assad while his forces have the upper hand.
Work to dismantle delivery and production equipment is relatively straightforward, according to experts, involving the use of simple tools, or even vehicles to run over and crush items. It is the later phases — disposing of highly corrosive precursor chemicals and filled warheads — that will pose the biggest challenge. Some precursors are expected to be transported out of the country to be destroyed.
“Syrian personnel used cutting torches and angle grinders to destroy or disable a range of items,” the U.N. statement said. “The process will continue in the coming days.” It did not disclose the location of the site where the work began.
Syria handed over details of its chemical weapons program to the OPCW after the U.S.- and Russian-backed plan averted the prospects of military strikes by the Obama administration in the wake of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus that killed hundreds.
Experts think Syria has the third-biggest chemical weapons stockpile in the world. U.S. officials have said the stockpile contains hundreds of tons of precursor chemicals for nerve agents such as sarin, as well as ricin and mustard gas, the blistering agent used in the trenches of World War I.
Some experts and opposition figures have expressed concern that the mission could turn into a cat-and-mouse game, drawing comparisons with efforts to destroy then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons.
Syria’s chemical weapons program was developed in the 1980s as a deterrent in the wake of a series of military defeats to Israel. But even without the most feared tool in his military arsenal, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, backed by militants from the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah and Iranian forces, outgun the rebels, who threaten to become increasingly consumed by a side fight against al-Qaeda-linked groups in their midst.
While the United States is among countries lobbying to bring the two sides together to find a political solution at talks in Geneva next month, the prospects appear distant. In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, due to be published in full Monday, Assad said he would not engage in discussions with rebels until they lay down arms.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the largest opposition political organization, has ever less influence over armed groups on the ground, raising doubts about whether it can meaningfully negotiate on their behalf. Damascus officials also have ruled out talks with the coalition after it welcomed the prospect of U.S. airstrikes.
“We don’t have any other option than to believe in our victory,” Assad told Der Spiegel.
Anne Gearan in Bali contributed to this report.