Created on Friday, 27 September 2013 Written by MIKE CORDER, Associated Press
THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The inspectors responsible for tracking down Syria's chemical arms stockpile and verifying its destruction plan to start in Syria by Tuesday. They will face their tightest deadlines ever and work right in the heart of a war zone, according to a draft decision obtained Friday by The Associated Press.
The decision is the key to any U.N. resolution on Syria's chemical weapons program.
The five permanent members of the deeply divided U.N. Security Council reached agreement Thursday on a resolution to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons. A vote depends on how soon the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is meeting later Friday at its headquarters in The Hague, can adopt its plan for securing and destroying Syria's stockpile.
U.N. diplomats say the Security Council hopes to meet Friday evening to vote on the resolution, but that depends on events in The Hague.
The draft agreed upon by Russia, China, the United States, France and Britain includes two legally binding demands — that Syria abandons its chemical stockpile and allows unfettered access to the chemical weapons experts.
If Syria fails to comply, the draft says the Security Council would need to adopt a second resolution to impose possible military and other actions on Damascus under Chapter Seven of the U.N. charter.
Issam Khalil, a member of Syrian President Bashar Assad's ruling Baath party, portrayed the deal as an American diplomatic failure.
"The resolution does not include threats or even possibilities of misinterpretations in a way that would let America and its allies to take advantage of it as they did in Iraq," Khalil said in Damascus.
Nonetheless, after 2 ½ years of paralysis, the agreement represents a breakthrough for the Security Council and rare unity between Russia, which supports Assad's government, and the United States, which backs the opposition.
The diplomatic push to find some agreement on Syria was triggered by an Aug. 21 poison gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in a Damascus suburb and President Barack Obama's subsequent threat to use military force.
The U.S. and Russia agree that Syria has roughly 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons agents and precursors, including blister agents such as sulfur and mustard gas and nerve agents like sarin.
A group of U.N. inspectors already on the ground in Syria investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons said Friday they are probing a total of seven sites of suspected attacks, including the Damascus suburb where hundreds were killed last month. That number was raised from three sites previously.
Even as diplomatic headway was being made, Syria was wracked by more violence Friday: activists said a car bomb near a mosque killed at least 30 people.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that monitors the crisis, said the explosion struck as worshippers at the al-Sahel mosque in Rankous were leaving after Friday prayers.
Residents of Rankous, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Damascus, later held funerals for some of the bombing victims. At one funeral, several rockets fired by government troops fell nearby, wounding some of the mourners, activist Mohammed Saeed said.
Car bombs, shelling and airstrikes have become common in Syria's civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people and driven another 7 million — around a third of the country's pre-war population — from their homes since March 2011. The conflict has heavily damaged cities and Syria's social fabric as it has taken on increasingly dark sectarian overtones, pitting a primarily Sunni Muslim rebel movement against a regime dominated by Assad's Alawite sect.
The proposal being discussed Friday by the OPCW would allow inspectors into any site suspected of chemical weapons involvement even if Syria's government did not identify the location. That gives the inspectors unusually broad authority.
The draft calls for the organization's secretariat to start inspections "as soon as possible and no later than" Tuesday and sets a target of destroying all of Syria's chemical weapons and equipment by the first half of 2014.
It calls on Syria to "cooperate fully with all aspects of the implementation of this decision" and let the inspectors examine any location they choose.
Once the plan is approved, it gives Damascus a week to give detailed information on its arsenal, including the name and quantity of all chemicals in its stockpile; the type and quantity of munitions that can be used to fire chemical weapons and the location of weapons, storage facilities and production facilities. All chemical weapons production and mixing equipment should be destroyed no later than Nov. 1.
In an indication of the enormity of the task ahead, the OPCW also appealed for donations to fund the disarmament, saying it will have to hire new weapons inspectors and chemical experts.
The diplomatic turning point came when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Assad could avert U.S. military action by turning over "every single bit of his chemical weapons" to international control within a week. Russia quickly agreed.
Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signed a deal on Sept. 13 to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control for later destruction. Assad's government accepted the deal and quickly signed up to Chemical Weapons Convention that is policed by the Hague-based OPCW.
Meanwhile, a group of international war crimes experts is calling for the creation of a war crimes court in Damascus to try top-ranking Syrian politicians, soldiers or rebels when the country's civil war ends.
Professor Michael Scharf of Case Western Reserve University told The Associated Press that draft statutes for such a court have been quietly under development for nearly two years.
Scharf said the group is going public now to push the issue of accountability for war crimes in Syria in hopes that will deter combatants from committing further atrocities.
Syria is not a party to the International Criminal Court — the permanent war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands — so the ICC does not have jurisdiction over war crimes there.
In Geneva, the U.N.'s top human rights body on Friday condemned what it called "systematic and widespread" rights violations by Syrian government forces.
The Human Rights Council, meeting in Geneva, voted 40-1 with six abstentions to approve a resolution condemning "continued gross, systematic and widespread violations of human rights ... by the Syrian authorities and affiliated militias" and "any human rights abuses" by opposition groups.
Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer and Matthew Lee at the United Nations, Toby Sterling in Amsterdam and Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.