DAMASCUS: International disarmament experts began their mission to catalogue Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons Wednesday under a deal that will see the arms turned over for destruction by mid-2014.
The 19-member team from The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons arrived in Damascus Tuesday to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 2118 ordering the elimination of chemical arms.
Along with 14 U.N. staffers, they are staying at a Damascus hotel.
They set up a logistics base after arriving, but did not appear to have left the hotel by early Wednesday evening.
“In the coming days, their efforts are expected to focus on verifying information provided by the Syrian authorities and the initial planning phase of helping the country destroy its chemical weapons production facilities,” a U.N. statement said.
This should be completed by Nov. 1.
The task is huge, as Syria’s arsenal is believed to include more than 1,000 tons of sarin, mustard gas and other banned chemicals stored at an estimated 45 sites across the war-torn country.
The mission is the first in OPCW history to take place in a war zone.
A team of U.N. experts left Damascus Monday after probing seven alleged chemical weapons attacks for a report expected to be released in late October.
The team visited Syria in August, and later confirmed that sarin was used in Aug. 21 attacks outside the capital.
The threatened strike was put on hold after the United States and Russia hammered out the deal under which Syria will turn over its chemical arms.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that global powers were “on the right track” with a plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons and could avert military intervention in the conflict if they worked together.
Agreement on the plan to eliminate the weapons was reached after U.S. President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve strikes to punish Syria’s regime over the Aug. 21 attack that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400.
“There is every reason to believe we are on the right track,” Putin said.
He said the chemical weapons plan, which rekindled an effort to convene an international conference for a solution, could not have been put in place without support from Obama and other leaders.
“I believe that if we continue to act in such a coordinated way, it will not be necessary to use force and increase the number of people wounded and killed in the long-suffering land of Syria,” Putin said.
Russia has been Syrian President Bashar Assad’s strongest backer during the war, blocking Western initiatives in the U.N. Security Council and blaming the Aug. 21 attack on rebel forces.
Russia has emphasized that rebels fighting Assad must also abide by the chemical weapons agreement and made clear it would demand proof of responsibility for any future attack before approving punishment.
Assad has said he will comply with the resolution and has turned over documents detailing its chemical arsenal.
The OPCW says it has no reason to doubt the information, which its inspectors will cross-check in Syria.
Top on the inspection list will be production sites due to be disabled by late October or early November.
As the Syrian conflict grinds on, there have been renewed calls for a peace conference to be held in Geneva, with U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon suggesting a target date of mid-November.
But the prospects for a conference are uncertain, with Syria insisting Assad’s departure is not up for debate, despite it being a key opposition demand.
“ Syria is staying put: the state, the nation, the people and the president. This is the Syrians’ choice,” Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said.
“All the people call for President Bashar Assad to be president of this state, whatever the opposition, the Americans and the traitors say.”
Also Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia had seen reports and heard from sources that some Middle East nations had developed close contacts with the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and other militant groups, Interfax news agency reported.
Lavrov said the reports, which he did not describe in detail, indicate that “these radicals already have some components of chemical weapons” either found in Syria or brought from abroad, Interfax reported.