Long Road Ahead For Weapons Inspectors In Syria

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is sending another team of inspectors to Syria. They are moving quickly to rid Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles, as outlined in a U.N. Security Council resolution. The U.S. has praised Bashar al-Assad's regime for keeping its pledge, so far. But many activists are worried that this chemical weapons deal buys Assad more time. The US insists that is not the case.

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Chemical weapons experts are working on a tight timeline in Syria to document and dispose of that country's stockpiles. The director-general of the chemical weapons watchdog group calls the effort an unprecedented mission. And so far, he says Syria has been cooperating. And the U.S. has even praised Damascus for going along with the plan.

But NPR's Michele Kelemen reports some analysts worry that the process simply buys time for Syria's government to kill rebels in other ways.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In his first public remarks on the risky mission, the director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, said his inspectors will have to visit 20 sites in Syria. And Ahmet Uzumcu says advance teams have only just begun to make an inventory of what needs to be destroyed.

AHMET UZUMCU: It's unprecedented and we are at the beginning of a difficult process. There are significant challenges. Nevertheless, our organization is well-equipped in terms of knowledge, expertise and experience to fulfill this mandate.

KELEMEN: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is to appoint a special coordinator to oversee the joint work by the OPCW and the U.N. Ban sent a letter to the Security Council this week outlining his ideas to have a light footprint in Syria, with the U.N. helping with security and logistics. He's calling for about 100 personnel. And says the toughest part begins in November, when experts will have just eight months to destroy about a thousand metric tons of chemical weapons, agents and precursors.

The OPCW's Uzumcu says the timeline is realistic only if both sides in Syria cooperate.

UZUMCU: I think the elimination of those weapons is in the interest of all. Therefore if we can ensure some cooperation by all parties, and if some temporary ceasefires in a fast way could be established in order to permit our experts to work in a permissive environment I think the targets could be reached.

KELEMEN: Syrian authorities, he says have been cooperating and have been, as he put it, quite constructive. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had similar words of praise, saying this is all happening in record time, following a U.N. Security Council resolution approved at the end of September to back up the deal he negotiated with Russia.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: Within a week of the resolution being passed, some chemical weapons were already being destroyed. I think it is also credit to the Assad regime for complying rapidly, as they are supposed to. Now we hope that will continue.

KELEMEN: His spokesperson insists that Kerry was not praising Bashar al-Assad, just pointing out the fact that the Assad regime controls the chemical weapons stockpiles and has the responsibility to honor Syria's pledge to get rid of its arsenal.

There is a risk though that Assad is viewed as a necessary party to a contract, says Frederic Hof of the Atlantic Council.

FREDERIC HOF: There is a danger, I think, that the Assad regime may see the chemical weapons agreement as a license to continue doing what it does, so long as it does not use chemicals.

KELEMEN: Hof, a former State Department official, says there was a brief hiatus in the fighting after the August 21st sarin gas attack near Damascus. But since then, what he calls the war on civilians has resumed. So Hof says the U.S. and Russia have some heavy lifting ahead if they want to build on the chemical weapons agreement they negotiated. For Russia, that means sending a message to Assad's regime.

HOF: The gratuitous shelling and bombing of residential areas must stop. There is no military aim, purpose, or mission entailed in any of this.

KELEMEN: And Hof says the challenge for the U.S. is to help the opposition - which is fighting its own internal battle against extremists - to form a legitimate and coherent delegation to go to a peace conference in Geneva. The U.N. wants to hold that meeting in mid-November.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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