A team of international weapons inspectors landed in Syria Tuesday afternoon, armed with a U.N. mandate for the formidable – or perhaps impossible – task of prying all chemical weapons from the Bashar Assad regime.
The team includes 19 inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons along with 14 U.N. staffers, who flew into Damascus from Beirut in neighboring Lebanon. Their initial task includes ensuring the regime has ceased creating new weapons and documenting existing caches.
The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously last week on a deadline of the middle of next year to ensure all chemical weapons in Syria have been destroyed. Some experts say this is too much to ask of the existing effort.
"It requires far more than throwing 20 experts into the country," says Reva Bhalla, the lead analyst for the Middle East and North Africa with private intelligence firm Stratfor. "We don't see the plan overall as realistically accomplishing the goal of eliminating Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles."
The U.N. agreement followed tense negotiations between the U.S. and Russia, which had previously blocked any U.N. resolutions on its Syrian ally. President Barack Obama threatened targeted missile strikes in September, following reports of an Aug. 21 regime chemical weapons strike, but later said he would seek prior approval from Congress.
Regime forces are tasked with providing security to the OPCW/U.N. team, as well as showing them the locations of the stockpiles.
It's important for the U.S. and Russia to give the impression that this plan is working, Bhalla says.
The team began Monday afternoon establishing a logistics base for its immediate work, said Martin Nesirky, a U.N. spokesman.
"In the coming days, their efforts are expected to focus on verifying information provided by the Syrian authorities and the initial planning phase of helping the country eliminate its chemical weapons production facilities," he said.
The U.N. agreement does not include any methods of enforcing the deadline by military force, which would require a separate resolution.
"Clearly, there is an expectation – not just by the United States, but by the international community – that Syria will abide by its obligations that are set in place by the OPCW," said State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki. "The international community will not only be watching. There's now a binding resolution that will hold them to that."
The recent U.N. action, as well as overtures from Russia and the U.S., don't address the conventional violence in Syria, now well into its third year of a civil war with more than 110,000 dead.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has cautioned this year about the use of force within Syria, which has become increasingly fractured along sectarian lines.
"The issues that underlie this conflict will not be solved any time soon. I think we're looking at a decade of challenges in the region with Syria being the epicenter," he told the Armed Forces Press Service during his ongoing trip to South Korea. "It's very complex, it's changing and most importantly we have to see it as a long-term issue."
He cited the delicate balance of security not just in Syria but the surrounding region, now home to more than 2 million refugees who have spilled across the borders. Dempsey cautioned against looking at Syria through "a soda straw" of just that nation's own boundaries and pretend to understand the regional situation.
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