THE HAGUE: Efforts to eliminate chemical weapons won a Nobel Peace Prize Friday for the global watchdog trying to destroy Syria’s stockpiles of nerve gas and other poisonous agents.
By giving its prestigious prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Norwegian Nobel Committee turned the spotlight both on Syria’s devastating civil war and on a type of weapon that has horrified nations since World War I.
The reaction in Syria was notably polarized. A senior Syrian rebel called the award a “premature step” that would divert the world’s attention from “the real cause of the war” while a lawmaker from Syria’s ruling party declared the Nobel to be a vindication of President Bashar Assad’s government.
Based in The Hague, the OPCW has largely worked out of the limelight until this year, when the U.N. called upon its expertise to help investigate alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
“The conventions and the work of the OPCW have defined the use of chemical weapons as a taboo under international law,” the Nobel Committee said in Oslo. “Recent events in Syria, where chemical weapons have again been put to use, have underlined the need to enhance the efforts to do away with such weapons.”
Friday’s award comes just days before Syria officially joins as OPCW’s 190th member state Monday.
OPCW inspectors are already on a risky U.N.-backed disarmament mission based in Damascus to verify and destroy the government’s arsenal of poison gas and nerve agents.
The OPCW experts have visited three undisclosed sites in their first week of operation and say that Syrian authorities have been cooperating. But they will face great challenges reaching locations in rebel-held or disputed territory. Government warplanes bombarded rebel-held targets close to a major chemical weapons facility Friday, highlighting the perils facing the body.
The air raids struck the town of Safira, on the edge of a sprawling military complex believed to hold chemical weapons production facilities.
The army has fought hard to retain control of the Safira military complex and is now trying to recapture the town from rebel brigades including the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria.
Unless they succeed in pushing those fighters back, any attempt by the OPCW experts to visit Safira would be risky.
“Right now it would be impossible with the clashes and the airstrikes, especially as there is a strong presence of the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, who don’t believe in anything called the international community,” said Rami Abdel-Rahman of the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“Events in Syria have been a tragic reminder that there remains much work still to be done,” OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu told reporters in The Hague. “Our hearts go out to the Syrian people who were recently victims of the horror of chemical weapons.”
Uzumcu said the $1.2 million prize money would be used “for the goals of the convention” – to eliminate chemical weapons.
By giving the peace award to an international organization, the Nobel committee highlighted the Syrian civil war, now in its third year, without siding with any of the groups involved.
Louay Safi, a senior figure in Syria’s main opposition bloc, called the Nobel award “a premature step.”
“If this prize is seen as if the chemical weapons inspections in Syria will help foster peace in Syria and in the region, it’s a wrong perception,” Safi said.
“But demolishing the regime’s chemical weapons alone will not bring peace to Syria, because many more people are dying because Assad’s troops are killing them with all types of conventional weapons,” he said.
Fayez Sayegh, a lawmaker and member of Assad’s ruling Baath party, told the Associated Press the award underscores “the credibility” of the Damascus government.
He said Syria is “giving an example to countries that have chemical and nuclear weapons.”
The United Nations and the United States praised the Nobel decision.
“Since that horrific attack, the OPCW has taken extraordinary steps and worked with unprecedented speed to address this blatant violation of international norms that shocked the conscience of people around the world,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said.
“Today, the Nobel Committee has rightly recognized their bravery and resolve to carry out this vital mission amid an ongoing war in Syria.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted the recognition came nearly 100 years after chemical weapons were used in World War I.
“Like the United Nations, the mission of the OPCW was born from a fundamental abhorrence at the atrocities of war,” Ban said.
“Together, we must ensure that the fog of war will never again be composed of poison gas.”