1 Oct 2013

The west holds its breath as inspectors enter Syria

You can but hope. Hope that it won’t be like the last time: endless waiting and waiting. Hours, sometimes days, in and around the Dama Rose hotel in Damascus, or another hotel used as their base up in Homs.

And then, finally, the green light. At last the UN convoys of white jeeps with their over-sized radio aerials sprouting from the bonnet and three-foot UN in black letters on the side. At last their convoys would roll out from the hotel base to monitor the ceasefire that did not exist.

No wonder poor old Kofi Annan threw his hands up, give in and walked off the diplo-scene as time and again, missions were curtailed, aborted or never even began as the jeeps and 4×4 vehicles yet again came under fire.

This time around the vehicles are soft-skinned, not armoured.


Into this environment – a raging and complex civil-war – around 20 chemical weapons (CW) inspectors are heading as of today. The world has seen nothing like it in our history in terms of the hazards, the tight time-frame, the complexity and (polite phrase coming up) the non-permissive environment.

Basically the initial team goes in, looks at the date supplied by President Assad’s government which has been saying long and loud that it has wanted to rid itself of one of the world’s biggest CW arsenals for several years now.

That advance party will shortly give way to the analysts, specialists and so forth, who will target around 25 CW sites.

Blunt operation

They begin at the beginning. The factories and manufacturing and mixing facilities will go first. The theory is that the Syrians will take the organisation for the prevention of chemical weapons (OPCW) inspectors in and the OPCW teams basically point out what needs to be wrecked. It’s pretty blunt stuff. Delicate chemical-producing labs and manufacturing sites will simply get broken: explosives perhaps, sledgehammers, driving a tank around inside the plants – whatever comes to hand and comes fast.

Because the clock ticks all the time. They have, in theory, to get the job done somehow by the middle of next year and some of the sites are either close to front lines or require the UN to cross into rebel-held territory and then cross back into government land in order to reach a site and have it wrecked by the friendly and co-operative Syrian colleagues.

Well that’s your theory. In practice of course those rebels regard all of this as a complete sell-out. They wanted bombing of President Assad’s government to oblivion, not CW inspections with the president apparently more firmly in place than for several years of war. What kind of reception will they give the men in the protection suits and gas-masks?

Inspectors under fire

Back in August we saw how at least one patrol of CW inspectors came under sniper fire whilst attempting to move from the hotel base in central Damascus to the Ghouta area where the alleged sarin massacre took place on 21 August. It was a reminder of times gone by for those hapless peace monitors, monitoring war instead.

So we can but hope. And all the while they must do this dangerous work of course in full-body chemical protection suits, in temperatures still the wrong wide of 30c and as often as not with body armour and helmets on top. As one official wryly remarked recently, it’s all a question of balancing whether your man is going to go down through heat exhaustion, or handling extremely hazardous chemicals, or being shot at.

Of course the OPCW is not the UN, though that said it functions in a formally enshrined historical relationship close to that larger body and in this case operates under direct mandate by the UN Security Council. Perceptions often matter far more than reality and the reality on the ground is that, for better or worse, these inspectors and destroyers will be regarded as an offspring of the UN.

As I say, cross those fingers.

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