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Disarmament Team Arrives in Syria

Michael Johnson

A team of 20 disarmament experts arrived in Syria on Tuesday as part of an internationally backed plan to rid the country of chemical weapons. Officials from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will begin to implement a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution calling on Damascus to eliminate all of its chemical weapons by mid-2014.

As the advance team gets started, meeting with the Assad government to assist in the disclosure of chemical weapons sites, the OPCW’s mission faces significant challenges. The Hague-based organization has never disarmed a country during an active war and previous weapons investigators have faced sniper fire near Damascus in August.

A convoy of inspectors from the OPCW prepares to cross into Syria at the Lebanese border crossing point of Masnaa, eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon on Oct. 1, 2013. (Photo: AP)

The inspectors’ first priority will be disabling the tools used to weaponize Sarin or VX nerve gas. OPCW officials may pour concrete into or remove parts from machines used to put chemical agents into bombs, shells and rockets. Since most chemical weapons components must be separated for stability and not stored in weaponized form, inspectors hope these efforts will impede Assad’s ability to use his sizeable chemical stockpiles.

Even though international weapons inspectors might – with difficulty – be able to disarm the chemical weapons sites they know about, Western countries will still face other obstacles to Syria’s disarmament. First, the Syrian government seems to be selective about which sites it will disclose and allow inspectors to visit. A recent Wall Street Journal report cited Western officials saying that Syria has over 50 sites, including some mobile units, but Damascus has only declared 30. “It is not clear if this is a deception or a difference of definition,” according to a U.S. official.

There is a further problem with the possibility of biological weapons in the Syrian arsenal. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told Congress the U.S. was tracking biological warfare agents in Syria, but biological weapons can be made using pharmaceutical and other civilian equipment. This would make it easier to avoid Western detection.

Equally damaging is the watered down language of the UNSC resolution, adopted unanimously late last week. Russian obstruction meant Western nations were unable to secure an enforcement mechanism under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter. Therefore, if Syria fails to comply with the UNSC resolution, another resolution would be needed to authorize any possible use of force.