The inspectors responsible for tracking down Syria’s chemical arms stockpile and verifying its destruction plan to start work there by Tuesday. They will face their tightest deadlines ever and work right in the heart of a war zone, according to a draft decision.
The decision is the key to any UN resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons programme.
The five permanent members of the deeply divided UN Security Council reached agreement on Thursday on a resolution to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. A vote depends on how soon the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is meeting later on Friday at its headquarters in The Hague, can adopt its plan for securing and destroying Syria’s stockpile.
UN diplomats say the Security Council hopes to meet on Friday evening to vote on the resolution, but that depends on events in The Hague.
The draft agreed upon by Russia, China, the United States, France and Britain includes two legally binding demands – that Syria abandons its chemical stockpile and allows 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 Seven of the UN charter.
Issam Khalil, a member of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ruling Baath party, portrayed the deal as an American diplomatic failure.
“The resolution does not include threats or even possibilities of misinterpretations in a way that would let America and its allies to take advantage of it as they did in Iraq,” Khalil said in Damascus.
Nonetheless, after two and a half years of paralysis, the agreement represents a breakthrough for the Security Council and rare unity between Russia, which supports Assad’s government, and the United States, which backs the opposition.
The diplomatic push to find some agreement on Syria was triggered by an August 21 poison gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in a Damascus suburb and President Barack Obama’s subsequent threat to use military force.
The US and Russia agree that Syria has roughly 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons agents and precursors, including blister agents like mustard gas and nerve agents like sarin.
A group of UN inspectors already on the ground in Syria investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons said they are probing a total of seven sites of suspected attacks, including the Damascus suburb where hundreds were killed last month. That number was raised from three sites.
Even as diplomatic headway was being made, Syria was still wracked by violence on Friday. Syrian activists said a car bomb near a mosque in a town north of Damascus killed at least 30 people.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the explosion struck as worshippers at the al-Sahel mosque in Rankous were leaving after Friday prayers.
The war that began in March 2011 has claimed more than 100,000 lives in Syria and has forced millions to flee the violence, according to the UN.
The proposal being discussed Friday by the OPCW would allow inspectors into any site suspected of chemical weapons involvement even if Syria’s government did not identify the location. That gives the inspectors unusually broad authority.
The draft calls for the organisation’s secretariat to start inspections “as soon as possible and no later than” Tuesday and sets a target of destroying all of Syria’s chemical weapons and equipment by the first half of 2014.
It calls on Syria to “co-operate fully with all aspects of the implementation of this decision” and let the inspectors examine any location they choose.
Once the plan is approved, it gives Damascus a week to give 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.
In an indication of the enormity of the task ahead, the OPCW also appealed for donations to fund the disarmament, saying it will have to hire new weapons inspectors and chemical experts.
The diplomatic turning point came when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Assad could avert U.S. military action by turning over “every single bit of his chemical weapons” to international control within a week. Russia quickly agreed.
Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signed a deal on Sept. 13 to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control for later destruction. Assad’s government accepted the deal and quickly signed up to Chemical Weapons Convention that is policed by the Hague-based OPCW.
Meanwhile, a group of international war crimes experts is calling for the creation of a war crimes court in Damascus to try top-ranking Syrian politicians and soldiers when the country’s civil war ends.
Professor Michael Scharf of Case Western Reserve University said that draft statutes for such a court have been quietly under development for nearly two years. He said the group is going public now to push the issue of accountability for war crimes in Syria in hopes that will deter combatants from committing further atrocities.
Syria is not a party to the International Criminal Court – the permanent war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands – so the ICC does not have jurisdiction over war crimes there.
In Geneva, the UN’s top human rights body on Friday condemned what it called “systematic and widespread” rights violations by Syrian government forces.