A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad adorns a wall as a United Nations vehicle carrying inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons leaves a hotel in Damascus on Oct. 9. (AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — United Nations-backed chemical weapons inspectors have identified 20 sites in Syria to inspect for chemical weapons stocks and precursor materials, but the ability of the teams to reach the sites is dependent on proper security, officials said Wednesday at The Hague.
In a rare press conference, Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), told reporters that “if we can ensure some cooperation by all parties, and if some temporary cease-fires could be established to permit our experts to work in a permissive environment, I think our targets can be reached.”
According to the agreement hashed out between the United States and Russia and ratified by the UN, all of Syria’s chemical weapons production facilities must be identified and destroyed by Nov. 1, while the rest of the country’s chemical weapons stocks and precursor materials will have to be destroyed by mid-2014.
Asked if the November goal is too ambitious, the OPCW chief was guarded, saying “much depends on the situation of the ground.”
Of the 20 sites identified, only one has been visited so far, while a second site would be reached within hours of the press conference, Uzumcu said.
And as the OPCW announced this week, the group has begun destroying some of the materials it has found.
But security is the main concern. “At the moment, there are certain sites located in areas which are dangerous,” said the OPCW’s Malik Ellahi. “We haven’t started our inspection work in those sites yet, but soon we will be required to do so. At that point, it will be necessary for us to be assured that conditions on the ground are such that our teams can proceed to do their work in safety.”
So far, inspectors have found unfilled munitions, which were specifically designed to deliver chemical weapons and have begun destroying those. But the more difficult and time-consuming work will come when the actual stockpiles of chemical weapons will be destroyed.
When that begins, more inspectors will be needed to stay at the destruction sites 24 hours a day, monitoring the process and making certain it is done safely. OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said that “when you get into destruction verification, our inspectors have to verify every moment of destruction activity. That consumes a lot of inspector days.”
An initial team of inspectors arrived in Damascus on Oct. 1, and another team is being trained to assist in the effort as soon as possible.
Given that weapons inspectors are entering a full-blown civil war with multiple factions fighting with the government and with each other, Uzumcu warned that “this is an extraordinary situation for OPCW. It’s unprecedented and we’re at the beginning of a difficult process. There are significant challenges.”
But he said he is confident that if Syria and other interested parties are able to cooperate, the UN’s timelines could be met.