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 said 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 that looks like a round of Edam cheese missing a wedge, said they are up for the challenge.
“People are still getting their heads around being in the global limelight,” said Michael Luhan, the OPCW’s sole spokesman, who found himself juggling three phones for hours one recent day as hundreds of journalists called to ask for details about Syria’s surprise enumeration of its chemical weaponry. “If this is not an example of building a plane and flying it at the same time, I don’t know what is.”
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.
“It’s kind of a 9-to-5 organization, in a way. It’s not a 24-7 organization, and it’s going to have to adapt to that,” said Faiza Patel, a former senior policy officer at the OPCW. “The organization is not really set up to be an investigative organization,” unlike the U.N. investigators who were sent to Iraq in the 1990s, she said. “It’s set up to do routine inspections that are based on the declarations that the states provide.”
But analysts praise its technical capabilities and expertise. 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, all under a tight deadline. 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 were in this backwater of the Hague, and they were getting along quietly, fulfilling their mandate.”
But, she said: “They’re very good. They’re very professional.”
Now, the organization that has long operated in the shadow of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency is looking to bulk up, and quickly. It has 125 inspectors on staff and has more retired ones on a roster whom it will 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 were ticking down a list of logistics as they 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 who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive preparations. 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, and others will set up a headquarters in Damascus. 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, especially in the middle of war, when security is sometimes a fluid situation, officials said. The job is made easier because much of it is not yet mixed into weaponized form, U.S. and OPCW officials have said.
One method is to incinerate the chemicals, analysts said. Another is to use hydrolysis to render the chemicals inoperative. The fastest method would be to remove the stores from Syria altogether and destroy them at a slower pace, but moving chemical weapons across state borders is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention.
“The convention was never written for the environment that we find ourselves in,” the OPCW official said. “At this stage, there are clearly things that we’d like to do that we can’t,” the official added. “But nothing is off the table, apart from things like just dumping it in the ground.”