United Nations officials set out a detailed eight-month timetable for chemical weapons inspectors to destroy the Syrian arsenal yesterday on Tuesday as Ban Ki-moon, the organisation's secretary-general, warned that the mission faced unprecedented dangers.
Ban set out the hazards faced by the inspectors in a letter to the UN Security Council that said full-scale disarmament would begin on Nov 1. Days after the first parts of the stockpile were destroyed at regime bases in Damascus, the UN said it would deploy up to 100 employees to finish the job by June 30. The three-phase effort could ultimately involve some of Syria's stockpile of 1,000 tons of deadly toxins and gases being shipped for destruction overseas.
"The joint mission will be expected to support, monitor and verify the destruction of a complex chemical weapons program involving multiple sites spread over a country engulfed in violent conflict," Ban warned.
"Heavy artillery, air strikes, mortar barrages and the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas are commonplace and battle lines shift quickly." A team sent to Syria last week under the terms of last month's Security Council has reported good cooperation from President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Video footage broadcast on Syrian state television yesterday showed the first images of UN inspectors at work in the country, wearing protective gloves, helmets and, in some cases masks, as they examined equipment and stockpiles at an undisclosed location. William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, welcomed the initial signs of Syrian compliance with UN demands yesterday as an "important step".
"All the known sites for the holding of chemical weapons in Syria are within regime-held territory," he said. To mitigate the risks facing the teams from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the mission will operate from two bases in Damascus and Cyprus. The Cyprus base will be used to conduct confidential planning and supervision of the mission after officials warned that the regime could seek to thwart the inspections.
Officials believe that Syria has concentrated its chemical weapons in at least nine sites as it has lost ground to rebels in the civil war. Damascus is believed to have held the arsenal in 25 military bases before the rebellion began in 2011 but at least five are now in rebel areas.
Syria agreed to submit a list of its catalogue of 1,000 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve gas after a sarin gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus killed hundreds of people in August. It has until November to destroy production facilities and weapons-filling equipment.
The regime was yesterday reported to have used fighter jets to bomb rebels besieging two military outposts in Idlib province. Two dozen brigades launched an assault on the bases near the opposition-held town of Maaret al-Numan. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 10 regime troops and five rebels had been killed in the clashes.