UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. secretary-general recommended Monday that approximately 100 people from the United Nations and the world’s chemical weapons watchdog agency be part of an unprecedented and dangerous joint mission to eliminate Syria’s poison gas stockpile.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a letter to the U.N. Security Council obtained by The Associated Press that the goal of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons program by mid-2014 will require “an operation the likes of which, quite simply, have never been tried before,” with greater operational and security risks because of the speed required.
Normally, it takes years to complete the destruction of a country’s chemical weapons arsenal. The U.N. chief proposed the establishment of a joint mission to do the job in less than a year, with the U.N. providing security, logistics, communications and coordination with the Syrian government and rebel groups, and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, in charge of technical consultations, verification and inspections.
Ban said the U.N. and OPCW realize that their mission won’t end the bloodshed but they are prepared to take “the very high risk … to rid Syria of these awful weapons, and remove the ever-present horror and risk that they pose.”
Given the “dangerous and volatile” environment in Syria, Ban said, “the joint mission will establish a ‘light footprint’ in Syria,” only deploying those personnel necessary to work in the country.
The recent flurry of diplomatic activity followed the Aug. 21 poison gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in a Damascus suburb, and by President Barack Obama’s threat of U.S. military strikes in retaliation.
The secretary-general’s 11-page letter was a response to the resolution adopted unanimously by the Security Council on Sept. 27 ordering Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile to be secured and destroyed and asking the U.N. chief to submit recommendations within 10 days on the world body’s role in eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons program.
Four days after its passage, Ban said, a joint advance team of 19 personnel from OPCW, and 16 U.N. personnel arrived in Damascus to initiate their activities.
The secretary-general said their rapid deployment was possible because of the close collaboration of the two organizations “as well as the cooperation of the Syrian government.”
Ban said success in destroying Syria’s chemical weapons depends “first and foremost” on the government’s cooperation.
“Without sustained, genuine commitment by the Syrian authorities, the joint mission will fail in its objectives,” he warned.
Ban welcomed Sunday’s “historic step” when Syrians began to destroy the country’s chemical weapons, under the supervision of the OPCW, supported by the United Nations.
Syrian personnel “used cutting torches and angle grinders to destroy or disable a range of materials, including missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling equipment,” Ban said, and he urged all parties “to ensure that this encouraging progress is maintained and indeed accelerated.”
The advance team has already initiated some activities in the first phase of the joint mission’s work which includes establishing an initial presence in Damascus, conducting initial verification activities and planning for site visits.
Ban stressed the dangerous environment for the advance team’s operations, especially in Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and other urban areas.
“Heavy artillery, air strikes, mortar barrages, and the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, are commonplace, and battle lines shift quickly,” he said. “Two mortars impacted in close proximity of the hotel in Damascus where the advance team will initially base its operations just hours before it arrived, while vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices have detonated in close proximity.”
During phase two, through Nov. 1, Ban said, “the OPCW must complete its initial inspections of all Syrian chemical weapons production and storage facilities and oversee the destruction … of all chemical weapons production and mixing and filling equipment.”
The time frame is very short, and the U.N. will open a support base in Cyprus to help with operations, improve its medical response capabilities, and strengthen security including by deploying armored vehicles and developing specialized training programs, he said.
Phase three, which will run from Nov. 1 to June 30, 2014, “will be the most difficult and challenging phase,” Ban said.
During the eight-month period, he said, “the joint mission will be expected to support, monitor and verify the destruction of a complex chemical weapons program involving multiple sites spread over a country engulfed in violent conflict, which includes approximately 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, agents and precursors that are dangerous to handle, dangerous to transport and dangerous to destroy.”
Ban said this will require moving U.N. and OPCW personnel “across active confrontation lines and in some cases through territory controlled by armed groups that are hostile to the objectives of the joint mission.” There will also be “exceedingly complex security challenges” at destruction sites because of the length of time required, as well as significant operational and logistical challenges and potential public health and environmental risks, he said.
Ban said “the joint mission will build upon the advance team deployment and expand to a staff of approximately 100 personnel from both the OPCW and the United Nations.” Ban said the number of U.N. and OPCW personnel in the mission would vary depending on the situation.
Ban proposed that the joint mission be headed by a civilian special coordinator appointed by the secretary-general in close consultation with the head of the OPCW.
The Security Council, which must authorize the proposed joint mission, is scheduled to discuss the report on Thursday afternoon.