THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The world’s chemical weapons watchdog was preparing Friday to launch a risky United Nations-backed mission into the heart of Syria’s deadly civil war to verify and destroy the country’s chemical arsenal in a matter of months.
The risks inspectors will face were underscored when a car bomb exploded outside a mosque north of Damascus, killing at least 30 people, the latest victims of a civil war which has claimed more than 100,000 lives and driven another 7 million — around a third of the country’s pre-war population — from their homes since March 2011.
Law experts, meanwhile, said discussions were underway to set up a war crimes tribunal for Syria to punish perpetrators from all sides of atrocities.
A late-night meeting at the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was expected to approve a plan to rid Syria’s regime of its estimated 1,000-ton chemical arsenal by mid-2014, significantly accelerating a destruction timetable that often takes years to complete.
The United Nations Security Council also was meeting Friday night in New York to discuss Syria and vote on a resolution to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons that will underpin the OPCW plan.
The draft agreed upon Thursday by Russia, China, the United States, France and Britain includes two legally binding demands — that Syria abandon its chemical stockpile and allow unfettered access to the chemical-weapons experts.
If Syria fails to comply, the draft says, the Security Council would need to adopt a second resolution to impose possible military and other actions on Damascus under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter.
President Barack Obama called the Security Council deal “potentially a huge victory for the international community.”
The agreement shaping up for approval Friday represents a breakthrough after 2½ years of paralysis in a deeply divided Security Council.
Diplomatic efforts to find some agreement on Syria gathered momentum in the aftermath of an Aug. 21 poison gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in a Damascus suburb and Obama’s subsequent threat to use military force.
The U.S. and Russia agree that Syria has roughly 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons agents and precursors, including blister agents such as sulfur and mustard gas and nerve agents like sarin.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the U.N. Friday that progress in Syrian chemical disarmament “should give an impetus to” moves to establish a zone “free of weapons of mass destruction and means of their delivery in the Middle East.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the U.N. General Assembly he hoped the Security Council resolution would be adopted “to support the OPCW in launching the verification and destruction of chemical weapons” in Syria. He said China was prepared to help fund the disarmament mission.