A convoy of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons prepares cross into Syria at the Lebanese border, October 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
Guided by Syria’s own list of its chemical weapons and production sites—an arsenal that only weeks ago President Bashar al-Assad denied he ever had or used—a team of international weapons inspectors is now on the ground checking the Syrian declaration and cataloguing the arms, a job that the Security Council has required be completed by November 1 so that the complete destruction of the weapons can begin.
The first steps in the process were taken over the weekend with the dismantling of some missile warheads, an announcement from the UN said. Under supervision from UN inspectors and independent chemical weapons experts, Syrians themselves began disabling or destroying the warheads, bombs and other equipment.
Even before the destruction of Syria’s poison gas weapons can proceed further, the job of verifying the Syrian inventory is already surrounded by unaddressed questions and obscured by gray areas, according to the United Nations disarmament chief, Angela Kane. Whether this unprecedented mission succeeds or fails, and why, will hold lessons for the future, not only because other governments may be tempted to use poison gases on their own people (as Iraq did in 1988) but also because of the real possibility that irregular, nongovernmental forces may acquire such weapons to use in civil wars or acts of terrorism.
The inspectors undertaking the disarming of Syria are chemical experts from the specialized intergovernmental Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, not from the UN, like those who have recently returned from Syria after two trips. Their preliminary first report confirmed that chemical weapons, notably sarin gas, had been used in an attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on August 21. That attack killed at least 1,400 people, more than a third of them children. Though the UN inspectors’ report last month did not apportion blame directly, its evidence pointed toward the Assad regime. Russia has insisted it was a rebel assault; the United States and European nations have blamed Assad’s government for this and other suspected chemical weapons use. The UN report will be published in final form at the end of October.
An agreement reached by Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia last month broke a months-long deadlock in the Security Council over how to deal with Syria. Apparently pressured or cajoled by Russia, the Syrians suddenly announced that they would sign the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention and allow their arms to be destroyed. The Assad regime subsequently turned over its list to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague, whose advance team is now in Syria.
“This was totally dramatic, very unexpected,” said Kane, who holds the rank of UN undersecretary-general and the title of high representative for disarmament affairs. “I think the investigation mission was really important because it set in motion a thinking process, and also a collaborative process between Russia and the United States on this framework agreement that they concluded in Geneva.”
The chemical team in Syria is there as a response to the Security Council resolution largely written by Kerry and Lavrov that was adopted unanimously September 27. The specialists from the chemical weapons organization (supported by the UN), will be responsible for confirming, securing and dismantling the sites associated with mixing agents, producing chemical weapons compounds and mounting them on military hardware.
Although Syria (like any other country under the Chemical Weapons Convention) is responsible for destroying the outlawed weapons, Kane said, the Syrian government has already told international officials that it is not able to do the job, usually a long, highly technical and very expensive process.