Read For Yourself: The Ultra-Ambitious U.N. Plan to Destroy Syria’s Nerve Gas

Read For Yourself: The Ultra-Ambitious U.N. Plan to Destroy Syria’s Nerve Gas

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon tonight outlined his ambitious plan to oversee the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons,relying on 100 technical specialists, administrators, and security officers to eliminate Bashar al-Assad’s unconventional arsenal by next summer. It won’t be an easy task, Ban admitted in a 10-page letter to the U.N. Security Council. Not only is it the first time the U.N. has carried out such a task in the midst of a civil war. The advance team that’s in Syria has already had mortars and car bombs go off right around their makeshift headquarters.

The team, which will be comprised of U.N. political and security officers and technical experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, will set up its headquarters in Cyprus, maintaining "’a light footprint’ in Syria, only deploying to Syria those personnel whose presence is necessary in the country to perform tasks," Ban wrote.

The 100-member team will be far smaller than some outside experts suggested it ought to be. David Kay, a former weapons inspector in Iraq, suggested the task of eliminating Syria’s unconventional stockpile could take "well over 1,000 people." And the U.N. team won’t have much time to get its job done. Ban believes his crew can supervise the destruction of more than 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, agents, and precursors — by June 30, 2014. Cheryl Rofer, a Los Alamos National Laboratory specialist in chemical weapons destruction, told Foreign Policy last month that she "wouldn’t be surprised to see this [Syria cleanup effort] last as long as ten years."

The U.N. plan, which will require approval by the U.N. Security Council, is designed to implement a previous agreement on Syria chemical weapons brokered by the United States and Russia, and endorsed by the U.N. Security Council and the OPCW’s executive board. The U.N. has already sent an advance team to Damascus to begin verifying the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons; Syrian officials using "cutting torches and angle grinders to destroy or disable" some missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling equipment."

But the operation — which is being conducted by a team of 35 people — will need to scale up rapidly in the coming weeks to be able to handle the task. Ban wrote that he would appoint a senior official, or "special coordinator," to manage the mission’s operations, following consultations with the director general of the OPCW. He also said the U.N. and the OPCW would move "as soon as possible" to conclude an agreement with the Damascus government to govern the team’s work in Syria.

Ban also detailed the enormous security challenges that the U.N. has already confronted in Syria. Just hours before the advance team arrived in Damascus, two mortars shells landed near the hotel that served as their temporary base of operations. Car bombs have detonated in "close proximity." Conditions are "dangerous and volatile, particularly in urban areas such as Damascus, Homs and Aleppo," Ban wrote in the letter. "Heavy artillery, air strikes, mortar barrages, and the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas are common place and battle lines shift quickly."

U.N. officials have voiced concern in private about the challenges of securing Syrian cooperation, noting that the Bashar al-Assad regime has previously held up visas for U.N. personnel and delayed the import of communications and security equipment for previous international missions to the country. So far, Ban said that Syria has "fully cooperated" with the advance team. But "without sustained, genuine commitment by the Syrian authorities the joint mission will fail in its objectives." Such cooperation, he noted, would require the "provision for immediate and unfettered access to sites and personnel."

According to Ban’s plan, the inspections will be carried out in three phases, beginning with an assessment of Syria’s declarations of its chemical weapons program and a preliminary inspection of Syria’s chemical weapons production facilities. In the second phase, which will be concluded by Nov. 1, the inspectors will oversee the destruction of all of Syria’s chemical weapons production and mixing and filling equipment. In the final, and "most difficult and challenging phase," the inspectors will be "expected to support, monitor and verify the destruction of a complex chemical weapons program involving multiple sites over a country engulfed in violent conflict."

Ban appealed to governments to provide "financial, material, technical and operational assistance" to the effort. He also urged countries with influence over the warring parties to urge the combatants to "ensure the safety, security and exclusively international character of the joint mission and its personnel."

But even while Ban welcomed the "historic step" of eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons, he conceded that the campaign to contain one of the world’s deadliest weapons program would not end the suffering in Syria, where more than 100,000 people have died, the majority killed by the Syrian government’s conventional weapons: "I am fully aware that the destruction of the chemical weapons program in Syria alone will not bring an end to the appalling suffering inflicted on the Syrian people. The only way to bring peace back to this country and its people is an inclusive political process. I have emphasized time and again that there can be no military solution to the problems of Syria."

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071013 SG Letter of 7 Oct by Noah Shachtman

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that UN and OPCW inspectors were responsible for physically destroying Syria’s chemical weapons. The international team is overseeing the elimination of the Syria program, but the actual job of destroying the program will be largely carried out by Syria, foreign governments.