Chemical weapons inspectors face 'historic' mission in Syria
Published Wednesday, October 2, 2013 11:48AM EDT
Current and former members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said destroying Syria's stockpile is a "historic" mission as its team of inspectors began their work on the ground.
For the first time, the OPCW team is operating in a war zone as violent clashes continue around Damascus and elsewhere across the country.
“The OPCW is a very competent organization, they have conducted inspections across the world for some 16 years now, but they’ve never had to operate in the middle of a conflict,” Faiza Patel, a former senior policy advisor for the group, told CTV’s Canada AM on Oct. 2.
“In fact, it’s not just historic for the OPCW; it’s historic for any inspection team.”
UN Security Council resolution 2118 calls for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile by mid-2014, giving the inspectors approximately nine months to find and dismantle an estimated 1,000 tons of chemical weapons.
Before the end of their mission, the inspectors intend to visit about 45 chemical weapons facilities declared by the Syrian government.
“(It’s) the most difficult job we’ve ever taken on, by far,” OPCW spokesperson Michael Luhan told Canada AM.
“The stockpile of this size would normally take years to destroy.”
Patel said the UN deadline is “very, very challenging,” but added that destroying certain equipment and storage facilities can be relatively easy.
“Destroying those is a pretty low-tech venture: you can roll tanks over some of them, you can smash some of them, you can mutilate machineries,” she said.
“What’s going to be far more difficult is how you actually deal with the toxic payload that these weapons contain and how those are going to be destroyed.”
Luhan said the inspectors have a number of “technological options” as they fan out across the country.
In some cases, weapons can be incinerated and mobile detonation chambers can also be used, he said.
But the first task involves destroying chemical weapons production facilities, Luhan said, thereby stopping any further production of chemical agents like sarin, a lethal gas that has been blamed for the deaths of hundreds of Syrian adults and children.
Luhan said the inspectors volunteered for the mission in Syria, and are getting additional combat pay and insurance to cover the increased risks.
“They didn’t sign up to the OPCW to work in a war zone,” he said, stressing that “safety and security of our inspectors is our top, top priority here.”
Luhan said the Syrian government is responsible for ensuring “a permissive environment” for the inspectors, but there are no illusions that Syria can guarantee safety in many parts of the country.
That’s why the OPCW will depend on the United Nations to communicate with various rebel groups and negotiate access to certain sites, Luhan said.
So far, he said, the Syrian government has been co-operative.