Chemical weapons inspectors give upbeat report on Syria despite bulky gear, security worries

 

McClatchy Foreign Staff

The members of the international team determining the exact size and contents of Syria’s deadly chemical arsenal – and then overseeing its destruction – must, while they try to work, wear both bulky hazmat suits, to protect them from the materials they’re destroying, and full sets of body armor, to protect them from the civil war raging around them.

But while the bulky protective gear makes the job of cataloging and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stores more difficult, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons expressed optimism Wednesday that its inspectors will be able to fulfill their mission within ambitious deadlines that foresee Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons largely eliminated in slightly less than three weeks.

After a week and a half in country, inspectors have seen only two of the more than 20 sites Syria has admitted. U.S. officials familiar with the Syrian program have estimated there are actually as many as 45 sites attached to the chemical weapons program.

And, with inspectors wrapped in two layers of protective gear, each site will be studied at a slower pace.

Ralf Trapp, one of the original members of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and a former secretary of the group’s scientific advisory board, noted that even such an apparently routine detail can increase the difficulty of an already difficult task.

“Full protective gear means you’re wearing a gas mask, which reduces visibility and the ability to communicate, beyond which, it can get quite hot in the suit,” he said. “Body armor adds weight and further slows you down, and makes it even hotter to work. This means people are slower, and shifts can’t last as long, so you need more people to complete the same task. It’s an issue.”

Regardless, the initial reports out of Syria indicate progress and even appear to convey a bit of optimism.

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said the inspection team had visited a first Syrian chemical weapons site on Sunday and Monday and was at another site on Wednesday.

He called it “the beginning of a difficult process.”

The mission is supposed to eliminate all traces of Syria’s chemical warfare ability by the middle of next summer. Of greater urgency, the teams now in Syria intend to destroy the machinery used to mix the chemicals and fill warheads by Nov. 1.

“Some equipment has already been destroyed,” Uzumcu said.

Jean Pascal Zanders, an expert on chemical weapons policy who runs The Trench, a website dedicated to chemical weapons issues, said that was good news.

“Once the machinery used to mix and fill is destroyed, the chemicals can’t be mixed to become deadly weapons, and can’t be filled into warheads to be used as weapons,” he said. “Once the empty warheads are destroyed, they cannot be used. Once the production is destroyed, supplies cannot be replenished. It is very simple, of course, but it’s very important. When they finish this work, before the total destruction of the Syrian program, the region is already much, much safer.”

Uzumcu said the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has dispatched a dozen inspectors to join the 16 inspectors who remain in Syria. A 12-member team from the United Nations also remains in Syria.

“Safety and security is an overriding concern,” Uzumcu said.

In an email commenting on Uzumcu’s concerns, Trapp said that various steps could help ease the security concerns, including consolidating weapons and chemicals “to reduce the number of locations to secure and monitor and to increase the effectiveness of certain destruction operations.” He also said the inspectors could turn to “improvised methods” to quickly render some of the chemical agents harmless, such as mixing mustard gas with bleach.

Uzumcu’s political adviser, Malik Ellahi, said that security, in the end, is the responsibility of the Syrian government, and the inspectors would have to rely on that. Even so, while still early, he said there is progress at the first two sites, including the destruction of unfilled munitions.

“The effort to make these sites inoperable is well underway,” he said.

Email: mschofield@mcclatchydc.com Twitter: @mattschodcnews

Read more World Wires stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
Smoke raises in the air following Israeli shelling in Gaza City on early Tuesday, July 29, 2014. A truce between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza remained elusive as diplomats sought to end the fighting at the start of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

    Israel targets symbols of Hamas control in Gaza

    Israeli aircraft, tanks and navy gunboats pounded symbols of Hamas control in Gaza City in the heaviest night of bombardment in three weeks of Israel-Hamas fighting.

  •  
Back-dropped by a mural by Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, California Governor Jerry Brown speaks during a press conference with U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Anthony Wayne, not seen,  at the Soumaya museum in Mexico City, Monday, July 28, 2014.  California's governor on Monday kicked off a three day visit to Mexico, where he will discuss immigration in separate meetings with President Enrique Pena Nieto and Central American diplomatic and religious leaders.

    California governor sets more talks on migrants

    California Gov. Jerry Brown will take another break in his trade visit to Mexico to talk about immigration reform with religious leaders from Latin America on Tuesday.

  • UN sanctions NKorea operator of ship with weapons

    The United Nations imposed sanctions on the North Korean shipping company that operates a ship seized by Panama in July 2013 for carrying undeclared military equipment from Cuba ordered all countries to freeze its assets.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category