Nation & World

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

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.