THE HAGUE: The world’s chemical weapons watchdog was preparing Friday to launch a risky United Nations-backed mission into Syria’s deadly civil war to verify and destroy the country’s chemical arsenal in a matter of months.
Law experts, meanwhile, said discussions were underway to set up a war crimes tribunal for Syria to punish perpetrators from all sides of atrocities.
A late-night meeting at the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was expected to approve a plan to rid Syria’s regime of its estimated 1,000-ton chemical arsenal by mid-2014, significantly accelerating a destruction timetable that often takes years to complete.
The U.N. Security Council also was meeting Friday night in New York (Saturday morning Beirut time) to discuss Syria and vote on a resolution to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons that will underpin the OPCW plan.
The draft agreed Thursday by Russia, China, the U.S., France and Britain includes two legally binding demands – that Syria abandon its chemical stockpile and allow unfettered access to the chemical-weapons experts.
If Syria fails to comply, the draft says, the Security Council would need to adopt a second resolution to impose possible military and other actions on Damascus under Chapter 7 of the United Nations charter.
President Barack Obama called the Security Council deal “potentially a huge victory for the international community.” “Realistically, it is doubtful we would have arrived at this point had it not been for a credible threat of U.S. action in the aftermath of the horrific tragedy that took place on Aug. 21,” Obama said, referring to a chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb.
The agreement shaping up for approval represents a breakthrough after two-and-a-half years of paralysis in a deeply divided Security Council.
The U.S. and Russia agree Syria has roughly 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons agents and precursors, including blister agents such as sulfur and mustard gas and nerve agents like sarin.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the U.N. Friday that progress in Syrian chemical disarmament “should give an impetus to” moves to establish a zone “free of weapons of mass destruction and means of their delivery in the Middle East.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the U.N. General Assembly he hoped the Security Council resolution would be adopted “to support the OPCW in launching the verification and destruction of chemical weapons” in Syria.
A draft of the OPCW decision obtained by the Associated Press calls for the first inspectors to arrive in Syria by Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a group of U.N. inspectors already in Syria investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons said Friday they were probing a total of seven suspected attacks, including in the Damascus suburb where hundreds were killed last month. Attacks with conventional and makeshift weapons continued unabated.
The unrelenting violence led a group of international law experts to call for the creation of a war crimes court in Damascus to try top-ranking Syrian politicians, soldiers or rebels when the civil war ends.
Syria is not a party to the International Criminal Court – so the ICC does not have jurisdiction over crimes there.
The OPCW destruction plan calls on Syria to give inspectors unfettered access to any site suspected of chemical weapons involvement, even if Syria’s government did not identify the location. That gives the inspectors unusually broad authority.
Once the plan is approved, it gives Damascus a week to provide detailed information on its arsenal, including the name and quantity of all chemicals in its stockpile; the type and quantity of munitions that can be used to fire chemical weapons; and the location of weapons, storage facilities and production facilities. All chemical weapons production and mixing equipment should be destroyed no later than Nov. 1.