BEIRUT — As deadly clashes raged on the edge of Damascus, international inspectors left their hotel on Wednesday to start work on the task of destroying Syria’s chemical arsenal under the tightest of deadlines in the midst of a civil war.
The inspectors’ mission — endorsed by a U.N. Security Council resolution passed last week — is to scrap Syria’s capacity to manufacture chemical weapons by Nov. 1 and eliminate the country’s entire 1,000-ton stockpile by mid-2014.
A convoy of SUVs with U.N. markings could be seen departing the central Damascus hotel where the team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was staying. It was not clear where the inspectors, who arrived in Syria on Tuesday from neighboring Lebanon, were headed on their first full day in the country.
Their work comes against a backdrop of relentless fighting.
On the northern edge of the city, fierce clashes between Syrian troops and al-Qaida-linked fighters left at least 12 soldiers and pro-government militiamen dead on Tuesday, anti-regime activists said, as the army pressed on with a campaign to dislodge opposition fighters from the capital.
The fighting in the contested district of Barzeh had flared up on Monday, when the army stepped up attacks against opposition forces who have been trying to capture the area for months, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Districts like Barzeh, on the edge of Damascus, are important for rebels based in the capital’s outer suburbs in their effort to take their battle closer to President Bashar Assad’s seat of power.
At least 19 government troops have been killed in Barzeh since Monday — including the 12 on Tuesday — and dozens of others have been wounded, the Observatory said. The rebels, mostly from the ranks of al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, also sustained losses but did not disclose them, the Observatory said. It also noted clashes in Jobar on the capital’s eastern edge.
In northern Syria, the Observatory reported clashes between Al-Qaida rebels and more moderate groups in the town of Azaz on the Turkish border. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militants made advances against fighters from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebels, the activists said. They did not have any reports of casualties.
Inter-rebel clashes, which have grown in intensity in recent months, add a new layer of complication to the 2 ˝ year conflict, in which over 100,000 have died.
The fighting illustrates the enormous challenges the inspectors — an advance team of 19 from a Netherlands-based chemical weapons watchdog and 14 U.N. staff members — face as they kick off their work.
Within a week, a second group of inspectors is scheduled to join them to form teams that will fan out to individual locations.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told The Associated Press Television Network that the country will cooperate with the inspectors and facilitate their mission, “including destroying the (chemical) stockpile.”
“We have a political will at the highest levels to (..) fulfill our obligations and commitments,” al-Zoubi said in an interview in Damascus on Wednesday.
Experts at The Hague, where the OPCW is based, said Sunday the inspectors’ priority is to reach the first milestone of helping Syria scrap its ability to manufacture chemical weapons by the Nov. 1 deadline, using every means possible.
Some of the inspectors will be double-checking Syria’s initial disclosure of what weapons and chemical precursors it has and where they are located. Others will begin planning the logistics for visits to every site where chemicals or weapons are reported to be stored.
They are empowered to conduct surprise visits to sites they suspect may contain undeclared weapons, and the U.N. resolution says they must be granted unfettered access.
The inspectors’ mission was born out of a deadly chemical attack on opposition-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21. The U.S. and its allies accuse the Syrian government of being responsible, while Damascus blames the rebels.
The chemical attack prompted the Obama administration to threaten punitive missile strikes against the Assad regime, touching off weeks of frantic diplomacy that culminated with a Russian-brokered proposal to have Syria surrender its chemical weapons and ended with the U.N. resolution that was adopted Friday.
The resolution also endorsed a roadmap for political transition in Syria adopted by key nations in June 2012, and called for an international peace conference in Geneva to be convened “as soon as possible” to implement it.