Syria will comply with a U.N. resolution to destroy its chemical arsenal, President Bashar Assad said Sunday, as weapons experts prepared to head to Damascus to begin the task.
A team of around 20 inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is set to arrive in Damascus Tuesday to oversee the destruction of the regime’s chemical arsenal.
The chemical body said their first priority is to help the country scrap its ability to manufacture such arms by a Nov. 1 deadline – using every means possible. That may include smashing mixing equipment with sledgehammers, 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.
The U.N. Security Council Friday ordered the OPCW to help Syria destroy its chemical weapons by mid-2014.
“This isn’t just extraordinary for the OPCW. This hasn’t been done before: an international mission to go into a country which is involved in a state of conflict and amid that conflict oversee the destruction of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction which it possesses,” OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said. “This is definitely a historical first.”
Syria acknowledged for the first time ever that it has chemical weapons after an Aug. 21 poison gas attack killed hundreds of civilians in a Damascus suburb and U.S. President Barack Obama threatened a military strike in retaliation. A U.N. investigation found that nerve gas was used in the attack but stopped short of blaming it on Assad’s regime.
After a flurry of diplomatic negotiations involving the U.S., Syria and Russia, Damascus made an initial voluntary disclosure of its program to the Hague-based OPCW. Under organization’s rules, the amounts and types of weapons in Syria’s stockpiles, and the number and location of the sites, will not be publicly disclosed.
The U.S. and Russia agree that Syria has roughly 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons agents and precursors, including blister agents such as sulfur and mustard gas, and nerve agents like sarin. External experts say they are distributed over 50 to70 sites.
“At this point, we have absolutely no reason to doubt the information provided by the Syrian regime,” an OPCW official said Sunday.
An initial group of 20 experts will meet with counterparts from Syria’s Foreign Ministry Tuesday and begin planning. A week later, the OPCW mission will be expanded to include a larger number of investigators who will arrive in waves and begin visiting sites and disabling equipment. At the same time, they will be examining sites for their suitability as places to eventually destroy chemicals and ready-to-fire weapons, which is usually done by incineration.
“At this stage we’re looking at tens of inspectors” for the mission, an OPCW military expert said. The teams will include chemists, military experts and medical personnel that have been trained to deal with the hazards posed by chemical waste.
Protection for OPCW staff will be provided primarily by the Syrian government, with support from the U.N., which has a long-standing working relationship with the OPCW and also has lines of communication open with rebel groups.
The OPCW expert said access to weapons sites in or near rebel-held territory would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, with the U.N. possibly helping negotiate safe passage. “It may be that we are not in a position to go to some of these places,” he said. “Our inspectors are all volunteers. This is not a mission that will be carried out come what may.”
In his first comments since the landmark vote was passed Friday, Assad told Italy’s Rai News 24 television his regime “will comply” with the resolution.
“Of course we will comply with it, and history proves that we have always honored all treaties we have signed,” he said, according to the state news agency SANA.
In the wide-ranging interview, Assad said that “so long as the United States is honest,” a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement would have a “positive” impact on Syria and the Middle East.
“Like the Syrians, the Iranians don’t trust the Americans ... but the Iranians are not being naive in their rapprochement. It’s a careful step that is based on the Iranians’ experience with the Americans ever since the 1979 revolution,” Assad said.
Asked whether he thought Europe could contribute to a proposed peace process for Syria, Assad said most European countries “are unable” to play a role.
“Frankly, most European countries are unable to play a role in Geneva II, because they do not have all the necessary factors to succeed in such a role,” he said.