Posers for weapons team

By Karin Laub

Syrian activist groups say the bombing in a rebel-held northwestern town has killed and wounded dozens of people.  Photo / AP
Syrian activist groups say the bombing in a rebel-held northwestern town has killed and wounded dozens of people. Photo / AP

The destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile is well under way, and the agency overseeing it, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has won a Nobel Peace Prize. The mission faces difficult challenges, from tight deadlines to safety risks for inspectors trying to get to sites near fighting.

Q: What happens next?

Syria became a full member of the OPCW yesterday, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has selected Sigrid Kaag of the Netherlands, a Middle East expert, to lead the joint UN-OPCW team charged with destroying Syria's chemical weapons. By October 27, Syria must submit a plan for the destruction of its stockpile. By November 1, the inspectors must complete verification of the inventory and render production, mixing and filling facilities unusable. By November 15, they must adopt a plan for destroying the stockpile, aiming for completion by mid-2014.

Q: How big is Syria's chemical arsenal?

Syria has briefed the OPCW, which is not releasing the information. The UN says Syria has about 1000 tonnes of chemical weapons materials. Former OPCW official Ralf Trapp and disarmament expert Jean-Pascal Zanders believe Syria has about 300 tonnes of sulfur mustard, a blistering agent, and about 700 tonnes of the nerve agents sarin and VX.

Q: How many sites?

Ahmet Uzumcu, the head of the OPCW, was quoted as saying that his team has visited five of at least 20 sites. US chemical weapons nonproliferation expert Amy Smithson said that among the sites are four production facilities near the towns of Safira, Khan Abu Shamat, Homs and Hama; six storage facilities near Safira, Homs and Hama and the towns of Furqlus, Latakia and Palmyra; and a research and development site in Damascus.

Q: How dangerous is the mission?

Sixty OPCW inspectors and UN staff are on the ground, and the team is to grow to 100. The OPCW chief told the BBC that one abandoned site was in rebel-held territory and routes to others led through it, preventing access. The risks were illustrated when regime warplanes bombed the rebel-held town of Safira last week, near one of the likely chemical weapons facilities. Over the weekend, two mortar shells struck 300m from the Damascus hotel where the inspectors are staying.

Q: How realistic is the timetable?

Trapp, Zanders and Smithson said destroying munitions and machinery with blow torches, sledgehammers and bulldozers by November 1 is achievable. Destroying the chemical arsenal will be more complicated. Steven Bucci, a former US defence official, said the target dates are "wildly optimistic," noting that it is taking the US and Russia decades to destroy much larger stockpiles.

Q: How will the stockpile be destroyed?

By November 1, inspectors are to have visited each site, taken photos, tagged and sealed items, and destroyed specialised production, mixing and filling equipment and unfilled munitions. In the next phase, the chemicals will be destroyed. Neutralisation with chemical agents is preferred, especially with precursors, the OPCW said. Precursors are easier to destroy than weapons-ready materials. Mustard gas can be neutralised with strong alkaline water or bleach. Some parts of the arsenal may be shipped out of the country.

Q: Is the regime co-operating?

The OPCW needs Syrian co-operation to destroy the stockpiles, and the mission could falter if the regime collapses before mid-2014. Smithson, of the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, a US think-tank, said the regime appears to be co-operating but has a "very sorry track record" on working with nuclear inspectors.

- AP

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