BEIRUT – International disarmament experts on 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, an official said.
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 bloody 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.
The production equipment included filling and mixing machinery, some of it mobile, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The Syrians are responsible for the actual physical demolition of the materials, while OPCW inspectors monitor the process and verify what is being destroyed, 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 the 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 sealed 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.
Underscoring the physical perils the inspectors face, four mortar shells landed Sunday in the Christian quarter of al-Qasaa, killing at least eight people, according to Syria's state news agency. It was unclear whether any OPCW experts were close to the explosions.
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.
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.