UNITED NATIONS/BEIRUT: A team of chemical weapons experts has made “encouraging initial progress” as it works toward eliminating Syria’s poison gas arsenal, the U.N. said Thursday.
Meanwhile, six rebel groups demanded that the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) halt its infighting with another insurgent faction in northern Syria.
A U.N. statement said “Documents handed over yesterday [Wednesday] by the Syrian government look promising, according to team members, but further analysis, particularly of technical diagrams, will be necessary and some more questions remain to be answered.”
The international team consists of experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague and United Nations personnel assisting them in their work. Last week, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded the elimination of Syria’s chemical arsenal.
“The team hopes to begin onsite inspections and the initial disabling of equipment within the next week, but this depends on the outcome of the technical groups established with the participation of Syrian experts [Wednesday],” the statement said.
It added that the technical groups would focus on three tasks: verification of the information handed over by Damascus, the safety and security of the inspection teams, and practical arrangements for implementing the work plan.
Agreement on the plan to wipe out Syria’s chemical weapons was reached after President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve airstrikes to punish Syria’s government over an Aug. 21 gas attack the United States says killed more than 1,400 people.
There was also optimism in Washington about the plan’s prospects, with some U.S. senators saying they felt encouraged after top Obama administration officials spent three hours briefing them on the situation in Syria.
“On the chemical side, at least on the part of the witnesses, there’s some optimism that [the plan] will work,” Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters.
The chemical weapons plan and last week’s Security Council resolution were based on a deal reached last month in Geneva by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
The rebels and Syrian regime blame each other for the Aug. 21 incident. The U.S. and other Western countries say a report by U.N. investigators indirectly implicates government-allied forces for the attack on a Damascus suburb.
The U.N. has been notified of at least 14 chemical attacks since the civil war began two and a half years ago. It estimates more than 100,000 people have died since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011.
Russia, a staunch ally and arms supplier of Assad, also blames the rebels for the Aug. 21 attack. In the north, six powerful Syrian rebel groups demanded Al-Qaeda-linked militants and rival insurgents end clashes that have escalated infighting.
ISIS seized Azaz, about 5 km from the frontier with Turkey, last month and has repeatedly clashed with the local Northern Storm brigade since then.
A previous attempt by rebel groups to broker a truce between the two sides failed.
The fighting prompted Turkey to close its border crossing, a lifeline for Syria’s rebel-held northern areas because it let refugees out, and supplies such as food and building materials in.
A statement by activists called for an immediate cease-fire between the two sides and called on them to submit their dispute to an Islamic court in Aleppo, about 30 km to the south.
“We ask our brothers in the faction of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria to withdraw their forces and equipment to their essential bases immediately,” the statement said.
“We consider them above spilling the blood of Muslims or rushing to describe them as infidels and apostates.”
The statement was signed by commanders from the powerful Ahrar al-Sham, Tawhid, Suqour al-Sham and Army of Islam brigades, and a copy was posted to Northern Storm’s Facebook page. It did not say what the groups would do if the two sides did not stop fighting or if ISIS did not withdraw.
“This was a declaration signed by the biggest rebel brigades in Syria. The message is clear,” an official in Ahrar al-Sham, who did not want to be identified, told Reuters.
Rebel divisions have hurt their fight against Assad’s better equipped and organized forces in the conflict.
Tensions have been rooted partially in conflicting ideologies, but more often in disputes over resources, territory and spoils of war.
Also, activists in the rebel-held city of Raqqa to the east accused ISIS fighters of smashing a statue of the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid because they considered it idolatrous, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
ISIS released an audio recording this week accusing Northern Storm of provoking the fighting in Azaz.
Separately, a video posted online showed rebel commanders in Rastan, a town in the outskirts of the central city of Homs, rejecting the presence of ISIS and the Nusra Front, another Al-Qaeda-affiliated faction, in the area.
Again, it was not clear what action they would take if the Islamists did not leave the area.
Rebel infighting has worked to Assad’s advantage. Just over a month ago, the government faced the possibility of military action by the United States, but the threat was averted by a deal to eliminate the country’s chemical weapons.