BEIRUT — The destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is well underway, and the agency overseeing it — the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — has won a Nobel Peace Prize. But despite global praise and a smooth start, the mission faces difficult challenges, from tight deadlines to safety risks for inspectors trying to get to sites near fighting. There’s also political fallout. The decision to make Syrian President Bashar Assad a partner in destroying the stockpile appears to have restored some of his legitimacy and boosted his chances of staying in power longer, while angering his opponents who now balk at attending political transition talks the U.S. hopes will begin in November.
A look at the mission:
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Syria became a full member of the OPCW on Monday, and U.N. Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has selected Sigrid Kaag of The Netherlands, a Middle East expert, to lead the joint U.N.-OPCW team charged with destroying Syria’s chemical weapons. By Oct. 27, Syria must submit a plan for the destruction of its stockpile. By Nov. 1, the inspectors must complete verification of the inventory and render production, mixing and filling facilities unusable. By Nov. 15, they must adopt a plan for destroying the stockpile, aiming for completion by mid-2014.
HOW BIG IS THE ARSENAL?
Syria has briefed the OPCW, which is not releasing the information. The U.N. says Syria has about 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons materials. Former OPCW official Ralf Trapp and disarmament expert Jean-Pascal Zanders believe Syria has about 300 metric tons of sulfur mustard, a blistering agent, and about 700 metric tons of the nerve agents sarin and VX.
HOW MANY SITES?
Ahmet Uzumcu, the head of the OPCW, was quoted as saying Monday that his team has visited five of at least 20 sites.
Trapp, Zanders and Smithson said destroying munitions and machinery with blow torches, sledgehammers and bulldozers by Nov. 1 is achievable. Destroying the chemical arsenal will be more complicated.
Trapp and Zanders said Syria’s chemical weapons threat can be eliminated relatively quickly once the mustard gas, the weapons-ready nerve agents and the means of delivering them are all destroyed.
HOW WILL IT BE DESTROYED?
By Nov. 1, inspectors are to have visited each site, take photos, tag and seal items, and destroy specialized production, mixing and filling equipment and unfilled munitions. In the next phase, the chemicals will be destroyed. Neutralization with chemical agents is preferred, especially with precursors, the OPCW said. Mustard gas can be neutralized with strong alkaline water or bleach. Mobile units will likely be deployed for some of the destruction, but some parts of the arsenal may be shipped out of the country, Trapp and Smithson said.
WILL PERPETRATORS ESCAPE?
The U.N. is documenting alleged war crimes by both sides in the civil war, and future prosecution is possible. The West holds the regime responsible for deadly Aug. 21 nerve gas attacks near Damascus, while Assad blames the rebels. A match between the types of weapons Syria has declared to the OPCW and weapons remnants found previously by U.N. inspectors at the site of the Damascus attacks could build a stronger case against the regime.