Syria Chemical Weapons Destruction Proceeding On Schedule

CREDIT: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Image

OPCW inspectors training at Germany's UN Training Centre

The United Nations’ coordinator for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons on Tuesday announced that the process was going smoothly with the full cooperation of Syria, a prospect that many of the most hopeful of the deal hadn’t deemed likely.

Special Coordinator Sigrid Kaag, who is acting as the go-between for the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) arrived in Damascus on Monday after meeting with OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü over the weekend. “To date, the Government of Syria has fully cooperated in supporting the work of the advance team and the OPCW-UN Joint Mission,” Kaag said in a statement from Syria.

The 60-person OPCW team has been on the ground for several weeks now and began the process of destroying equipment related to Syria’s chemical weapons on October 6. “Inspections have been conducted at 17 sites,” the OPCW said in an update on its website on Monday. “At 14 sites the inspectors carried out activities related to the destruction of critical equipment to make the facilities inoperable.”

Since the deal between the United States and Russia was formalized in late September at the United Nations, there’s been an outpouring of international assistance to aid in the mission. The State Department announced on Monday that the U.S. sent ten armored car Chevrolet Suburbans to help the team conduct its inspections, bringing the total American aid to the mission to $6 million. The German military’s U.N. Training Centre has been providing simulations and exercises for OPCW members to help prepare them for working in the midst of a combat zone, while Norway has been tapped to possibly help destroy the actual chemical weapons compounds.

Even states that have backed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad have proven eager to aid in ridding his regime of its weapons of mass destruction. China was quick to announce that it was recommending 10 chemical weapons experts to aid in the dismantling process as well as financial support. Russia has also reportedly offered to provide security to the inspectors as they carry out their task. The first U.N. team to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria was met with sniper fire; the current joint OPCW/U.N. mission has thus far avoided such a fate.

Despite the early successes, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power made clear at a U.N. Security Council meeting on Tuesday the enormity of the task ahead. “Make no mistake, what we are attempting is without precedent,” she said. “Never before have international experts been asked to locate, secure and destroy a vast quantity of nerve agents, toxins and other chemical arms in a country torn apart by conflict.”

Nor did Power mince words about the concerns that Syria will be unable to fulfill the provisions of the Council’s binding resolution on the topic. “The responsibility for complying with Resolution 2118 rests with Syria’s leadership, which built these weapons of mass destruction; then lied about them; then used them; then promised – under international pressure – to cooperate in eliminating them,” Power said.

The skepticism Power displayed is still far less than what some expressed when the deal between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was first announced. At the time, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John McCain (R-AZ) — two of the chief Republican advocates for President Obama launching military strikes against Syria — slammed the agreement as meaningless. “It requires a willful suspension of disbelief to see this agreement as anything other than the start of a diplomatic blind alley,” the two said in a joint statement, “and the Obama administration is being led into it by Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin.”

Other Republicans at the time seemed wary of the deal, but willing to give the diplomatic option a chance. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) told the New York Times that he believed that the shift from possible military intervention over the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds was a positive development. “I hope it works out,” Johnson said of Obama’s new tactic. “I truly do. If he succeeds with this framework, people have to give him credit.” None of the Republican offices contacted for comment on today’s announcement from the U.N. returned ThinkProgress’ request at the time of publication.