THE HAGUE — The phone calls have been overwhelming and the late nights unusual at a quiet organization charged with an unprecedented task: disarming Syria of its chemical weapons in the middle of a civil war.
On Monday, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will send a team of inspectors to Damascus, and its success or failure could shape whether the United States and its partners push once again to intervene militarily in Syria. The tiny organization, which just six weeks ago was accustomed to calmer work overseeing the destruction of Cold-War-era stockpiles of American and Russian weaponry, has had to shift to war footing as it prepares to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons in a matter of months.
Among the questions that remain are whether the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad has fully declared its stockpile; whether the inspectors will be secure in dangerous and fluid territory; and whether they can live up to ambitious timetables, approved Saturday, in which they must destroy Syria’s capability to produce chemical weapons by Nov. 1 and eliminate all chemical and munitions stockpiles by July 1. Such efforts usually take years.
Critics say that the agency’s consensus-driven approach to resolving conflicts about disclosures may move too slowly for a fast-moving situation on the ground and that it has little experience in doing detective work when weapons are hidden.
But officials at the 16-year-old agency, housed in a building in the Hague, say they are up for the challenge.
The OPCW is charged with implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention, which went into force in 1997 and requires the elimination of all chemical weapons by the 189 states — 190 including Syria — that are party to the convention. That work has taken inspectors to unstable countries such as Libya and Iraq.
Most of the efforts, however, have been devoted to overseeing the slow, methodical destruction of vast stores of American and Russian weaponry, along with inspecting chemical plants around the world to ensure that they are not being used to produce new weapons. Improvising under live fire typically has not been the agency’s task. Most plans are made a year in advance.
OPCW officials were part of the larger U.N. inspection team that was on the ground in Damascus on Aug. 21 when the chemical weapons attack took place on the outskirts of the city. They visited the site five days after the attack — coming under fire along the way — interviewed survivors, and took samples and weapons measurements. Then they turned around a report in three weeks.
“It’s this body of nerdish people who go out in gumboots and collect chemical samples, and go into factories and oversee the destruction of chemical weapons,” said Patricia Lewis, research director of international security at Chatham House in London and the former director of the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research. “”They’re very good. They’re very professional.”
The organization has 125 inspectors on staff and has more retired ones on a roster to rope into service as it establishes a presence in Syria. The agency intends to staff its Syrian delegation out of its own ranks for now, officials said, but the resolution passed Saturday by its executive council calls for expansion. Its budget this year is $95 million, paid by the countries who are its members.
Officials Saturday readied a multi-ton airlift of equipment and a delegation of inspectors and other support staff numbering about 20 in total, according to an OPCW official. A plane filled with supplies and personnel is scheduled to touch down in Damascus on Monday, so that the inspectors can begin work a day later. Site inspections will begin in about a week.
The first task of the team will be to check the sites and munitions against the Syrian government’s declaration, the official said. Then the inspectors will need to oversee the rapid destruction of equipment used to produce chemical weapons, something analysts said could be done with sledgehammers, buzz saws and bulldozers.
The destruction of the chemical materiel itself will take longer and is more complicated.