International disarmament experts Sunday began dismantling and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal and the equipment used to produce it, taking the first concrete step in their colossal task of eliminating the country’s chemical stockpile by mid-2014.
The inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have about nine months to purge President Bashar Assad’s regime of its chemical program. The mission, endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, faces the tightest deadline in the watchdog group’s history and must simultaneously navigate Syria’s civil war.
Sunday marked the fifth day that an advance team of around 20 inspectors have been in the country and the first day that involved actually disabling and destroying weapons and machinery, an official on the joint OPCW-U.N. mission said.
Experts destroyed missile warheads, aerial bombs and chemical mixing equipment Sunday on the first day of a campaign to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons, the UN said.
International experts supervised Syrian personnel who "used cutting torches and angle grinders to destroy or disable a range of items," said a statement released by the United Nations and the OPCW.
"Let it be clear that it is the Syrians who do the actual destroying while we monitor, observe, verify and report," the official said. He declined to provide details or say where the work took place.
This is just the beginning of a complicated process to eliminate Syria’s estimated 1,000-ton chemical weapons stockpile and the facilities that created it. Damascus developed its chemical program in the 1980s and 1990s, building an arsenal that is believed to contain mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin, VX and tabun.
The production and storage facilities are understood to be scattered around the country.
The OPCW-U.N. advance team arrived last week to lay the foundations for a broader operation of nearly 100 inspectors. Those already in Syria have been double-checking Assad regime’s initial disclosure of what weapons and chemical precursors it has and where they are located.
Members of the team are planning visits to every location where chemicals or weapons are stored – from trucks loaded with munitions up to full-on production sites.
Inspectors can use any means to destroy equipment, including crude techniques like taking sledgehammers to control panels or driving tanks over empty vats. But the second phase – destroying battle-ready weapons – is more difficult, time-consuming and expensive. It can be done by incinerating materials in furnaces at ultra-high temperatures or by transforming precursor chemicals or diluting them with water.
It’s an arduous task in the best of times, and Syria offers anything but an easy work environment. 
The civil war has laid waste to the country’s cities, shattered its economy, killed around 100,000 people and driven more than 2 million people to seek shelter abroad. Another nearly 5 million people have been displaced within the country, which has become a patchwork of rebel-held and regime-held territory.
The disarmament mission stems from a deadly Aug. 21 attack on opposition-held suburbs of Damascus in which the U.N. has determined the nerve agent sarin was used. Hundreds of people were killed, including many children. The U.S. and Western allies accuse the Syrian government of being responsible, while Damascus blames the rebels.
The Obama administration threatened to launch punitive missile strikes against Syria, prompting frantic diplomatic efforts to forestall an attack. Those efforts concluded with September’s unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons.
The U.S. and Russia are set to hold their first high-level talks Monday since sealing the deal to destroy the chemical weapons. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov planned to meet to discuss both issues on the sidelines of an economic summit in Indonesia.
In an interview in a state-run newspaper Sunday, Assad said the Syrian regime began producing chemical weapons in the 1980s to “fill the technical gap in the traditional weapons between Syria and Israel.” He said production of chemical weapons was halted in the late 1990s but provided no further information.
He also admitted making “mistakes” at the start of the uprising against him in March 2011, in an interview published Sunday by the German weekly Spiegel.
“Whenever political decisions are made, mistakes happen. Everywhere in the world. We are all just people,” Assad said when asked whether it was a mistake to respond with force to peaceful protests in the early days of the revolt against his family’s 40-year reign.