An advance group of international inspectors arrived in Syria yesterday to begin the ambitious task of overseeing the destruction of President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons programme, kicking off a mission that must navigate the country's bloody civil war as well as the international spotlight.
Twenty inspectors from a Netherlands-based chemical weapons watchdog crossed into Syria from Lebanon on their way to Damascus to begin their complex mission of finding, dismantling and ultimately destroying an estimated 1,000-ton chemical arsenal.
The experts have about nine months to complete the task, the shortest deadline that experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have ever faced in any nation, and their first mission in a country at war.
Experts at The Hague, where the OPCW is based, said the inspectors' priority was to achieve the first milestone of helping Syria scrap its ability to manufacture chemical weapons by a November 1 deadline, using every means possible. That may include smashing mixing equipment with sledgehammers, blowing up delivery missiles, driving tanks over empty shells and running machines without lubricant so they seize up.
The inspectors' mission was born out of a deadly chemical attack on opposition-held suburbs of Damascus on August 21.
On Monday, Syria's foreign minister compared what he described as an invasion of foreign terrorists across his country to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
"There is no civil war in Syria, but it is a war against terror that recognises no values, nor justice, nor equality, and disregards any rights or laws," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said in a speech to the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York.
"The people of New York have witnessed the devastations of terrorism, and were burned with the fire of extremism and bloodshed, the same way we are suffering now in Syria," Moualem said, referring to the September 11 attacks carried out by the al-Qaeda network. The US mission to the United Nations said Moualem's comment was "as disingenuous as it is offensive".
Reuters, Associated Press