Syrian chemical weapons inspectors
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.

This is uncharted territory for the OPCW and the UN. There has never been an operation like this, on this scale and in the midst of a civil war with a fragmented armed opposition that has also been accused of using poison gases. There is not, as yet, been any general cease-fire arranged that would allow inspectors to visit sites in rebel-held areas, from which Syrian officials insist they have removed chemicals. How to verify that claim is one of the biggest questions. Another critical issue will be how to protect the specialists working anywhere in Syria for the chemical weapons organization, which is small and without a security force of its own.

There have been suggestions that the UN use peacekeeping troops, Kane said. She dismisses that idea as unrealistic. “I think we all agree it cannot be, because how long would it take? How long does it take us to raise the troops? They have to be equipped and trained. They have to be flown in. It’s just not feasible. I think we have [to find] some other way.”

Kane said that there are still huge uncertainties about the sites on the Syrian list. “The inspectors now have to go and visit those sites, catalogue them, check the inventories from the list that they have and then basically seal them and secure them so that no one can get at them. And these sites are, of course, in various locations. We know that the sites [on the Syrian list] are in government-held territory. But we are also aware that they apparently have had previous sites which are now in rebel-held territory, which they evacuated, and that’s where the question comes in: Is there anything there that could possibly not have been taken out in time that has fallen into rebel hands? What else is there? What else could there be?”

“Syria as well as the Russian Federation have said that the rebels do have chemical arms and agents,” Kane said. “We don’t know that.”

Kane said that no one will know whether the Syrian declaration is true and complete until the chemical weapons experts have visited and inventoried the sites. In disarming Iraq in the 1990s, UN inspectors received a series of “final” declarations on weapons programs from the Saddam Hussein regime, none of which were totally believable.

In Syria, she said, the UN waits for the judgment of the OPCW team. “They will be the ones to say yes, or whatever, to what the Syrian government has given us [about what] is in the warehouses. That basically has to be finished by November 1, so it’s less than a month from now that we actually know what their verdict is on the declaration; whether they actually find that it is correctly done or not.”

The Security Council resolution demanding the dismantling and destruction of Syria’s chemical stocks set an unbelievably short schedule for completion of the job: eight months. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to send the council early this week some recommendations of how to proceed.

Kane, a German national who has a been in the UN for more than thirty years—working in organizational management, political affairs and peacekeeping, including assignments in Ethiopia and Eritrea, Congo, Indonesia and Thailand—led two rounds of negotiations with the Syrian government in recent months. The first set of talks, before the Ghouta attack, allowed her UN team to look at various sites in the country where chemical weapons may have been used, particularly in Khan al-Assal, near the city of Aleppo, where rebels have been accused of being responsible.

That team was in Damascus when the Ghouta incident occurred, and the secretary-general ordered the inspectors to change course and refocus on Ghouta. Kane had to go to Damascus to negotiate again for access to this new target. “It was not easy,” she said in an interview in her office.

“The [UN] team was in Damascus; they had arrived on Saturday or Sunday, and on Wednesday it happened,” she said of the August 21 attack. “Our agreement was precise. Ghouta was not part of that agreement.” The Syrians, representing the foreign ministry and the military, were “not keen” to allow the inspectors to divert from the plan, she said. Time was lost in the process.

“It was very tough,” she said. “But in the end they did agree, and so the team basically went to two areas on opposite ends of Damascus: a suburb in the east and a suburb in the west. We had to agree on a cease-fire because there was shelling all around. We had to negotiate for access to the rubble, and also that they could see the victims, the healthcare workers, whatever. So we went out on four different days and came back with a lot of samples.”

The speed with which the deadlock in the Security Council was broken is a marvel to Kane. The council is now actively pushing engagement on three fronts: the destruction of chemical weapons, a more robust response to a humanitarian crisis born of conflict that has driven millions of Syrians from their homes into refuge across borders or displacement within Syria, and the convening of an international conference in Geneva as early as mid-November, to work on a political solution to the civil war. Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint special envoy on Syria for the Arab League and the UN, says he is not very hopeful this can happen, or at least not so soon.

Kane said that in her negotiations with Syrian government officials and military officers, an unspoken message they wanted to send was, “We are not Iraq.” As a country that prides itself on being among the original members of the United Nation, Syria is totally opposed to being put under a Chapter VII UN resolution that allows for a use of military force if there is noncompliance, as happened in Iraq. “Iraq looms over everything,” Kane said. The resolution as finally adopted avoided that level of enforcement, but it did leave the door open to punitive action under Chapter VII if necessary.

After two and a half years of stalling, Kane said, “All of a sudden now we have Resolution 2118, the Geneva framework, the high-level agreement and now the council presidential statement for humanitarian action. Suddenly, it’s kicked something loose that actually has been very beneficial. All I can say is I’m hoping it stays that way. But you just never know.”

You can find more of Barbara Crossette’s coverage of Syrian disarmament here.