As the program to destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons begins, the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is winning some rare praise from the West for its cooperation in the ambitious mission.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that it was a “credit” for the Assad regime that the process of destroying the chemical weapons had begun in “record time” and with the compliance of Damascus.
“The process has begun in record time and we are appreciative for the Russian cooperation and obviously for Syrian compliance,” Mr. Kerry told reporters after talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Indonesia. “I think it’s extremely significant that yesterday, Sunday, within a week of the [United Nations] resolution [on Syria’s chemical arsenal] being passed, some chemical weapons were being destroyed.”
Weapons inspectors from the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons began the destruction process on Sunday, visiting a facility accompanied by UN staff and Syrian personnel who used cutting torches and angle grinders to destroy or disable a range of items, according to the OPCW statement.
“This included missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling equipment. The process will continue in the coming days,” the statement said.
In a separate statement, the OPCW said that the work of an initial team that arrived in Damascus on Oct. 1 had ended and the personnel had returned to The Hague. The team was charged with discussing the chemical weapons inventory with the Syrian authorities ahead of the program to destroy the weapons and production facilities.
“The discussions were constructive and the Syrian authorities were cooperative,” the OPCW said.
Syria is believed to possess some 1,000 tons of chemical agents in the form of mustard gas, a blistering agent, and the nerve agents sarin and VX. An OPCW decree issued last month and backed by UN Security Council Resolution 2118 calls for Syria’s entire chemical arsenal to be cataloged and checked off against the Syrian inventory by the end of the month. The suspected four production sites also are required to be destroyed by Nov. 1. The entire arsenal has to be destroyed by July 1, 2014.
The facility inspected on Sunday was not disclosed. But the Syrian army’s elite 4th Armored Division has bases in hills west of Damascus within easy reach of the capital and away from fighting which made them a possible starting point for the inspectors.
Another candidate is Syria’s top chemical, biological and missile research and development facility located at Jernaya, four miles west of Damascus. Rockets filled with sarin nerve agent were fired into rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21, allegedly from Mount Qassioun, which overlooks Damascus from the west and lies close to military bases. The bombardment killed more than 1,000 people, making it the deadliest poison gas attack in 25 years and triggering a fast-paced chain of events that led to the program to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
The goodwill generated by the successful launch of the program has fostered hopes that a peace conference can be arranged bringing the Assad regime and rebels together in Geneva next month.
Kerry and Mr. Lavrov discussed the mooted peace conference during their talks in Bali Monday.
“We advocate holding the international conference in mid-November,” Mr Lavrov said. “Today, we agreed on the steps needed for both the government and the opposition to come to the conference.”