BEIRUT – Wading into the world spotlight, international inspectors arrived in Damascus on Tuesday to begin the monumental task of overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons in the middle of a civil war.
The inspectors from a Netherlands-based chemical weapons watchdog have around nine months to complete their mission that calls for finding, dismantling and eliminating President Bashar Assad’s estimated 1,000-ton arsenal.
Their task has been endorsed by a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for Syria’s chemical stockpile to be scrapped by mid-2014. The deadline is the tightest that the experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have ever faced.
An advance team of 19 inspectors and 14 U.N. staff members arrived in Damascus late Tuesday afternoon in a 19-vehicle convoy escorted from the Lebanese border by two Syrian Foreign Ministry representatives. The experts set up a logistics base for its immediate work, the U.N. said in a statement.
Experts at The Hague, where the OPCW is based, said Sunday the inspectors’ priority is to reach the first milestone of helping Syria scrap its ability to manufacture chemical weapons by a Nov. 1 deadline, using every means possible.
The destruction mission could include smashing mixing equipment, blowing up delivery missiles, driving tanks over empty shells or filling them with concrete, and running machines without lubricant so they seize up and become inoperable.
Some of the inspectors will be double-checking Syria’s initial disclosure of what weapons and chemical precursors it has and where they are located. Others will begin planning the logistics for visits to every site where chemicals or weapons are reported to be stored.
The inspectors’ mission was born out of a deadly chemical attack on opposition-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21. The U.S. and its allies accuse the Syrian government of being responsible, while Damascus blames the rebels.
The chemical attack prompted the Obama administration to threaten punitive missile strikes against the Assad regime, touching off weeks of frantic diplomacy that ended with Friday’s U.N. resolution.
Also Tuesday, a Syrian activist group that tracks the conflict said that more than 115,000 people have been killed in the revolt. The tally from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights includes around 29,000 regime troops, 18,000 pro-government militiamen, and some 23,000 rebels.