WASHINGTON — The fast-paced effort to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons will kick off Tuesday when the first 20 international experts arrive in Damascus to prepare for field inspections.
The advance team will meet with senior Syrian officials to lay the groundwork for a complex effort that aims to impound, dismantle, remove or destroy all of President Bashar Assad's toxic weapons by mid-2014 under a United Nations Security Council resolution approved Friday.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body that is conducting the work, said 20 additional inspectors would go to Syria early next week to start disabling the equipment used to assemble chemical munitions. Once complete, that would largely remove the threat of future poison gas attacks by Syrian forces.
"In the first week they will be setting up operations and getting things primed for the hands-on, formal verification work next week," OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said by telephone Monday from The Hague, where the organization is based.
"So far, at this point, we have nothing we can complain about in terms of cooperation" from Assad's government, Luhan added. "We make no assumptions about the future, but for now it's businesslike and cooperative and efficient."
The inspectors' first priority is to disable the equipment used to mix precursor chemicals into sarin or VX nerve gases and pour the lethal material into bombs, shells and rockets. Inspectors will seek to destroy the mixing and filling apparatus by Nov. 1 by removing parts, pouring concrete into machines, running engines without motor oil until they seize up, and other mostly low-tech methods.
The teams will include chemists, technical specialists and medical personnel trained to respond to an accidental release of poison gas. With Syria still engaged in a civil war, the inspectors will travel in convoys with unarmed U.N. guards and under the protection of Syrian military forces.
Assad has pledged to cooperate with the plan, which has gathered speed in the two weeks since he acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, the international treaty that bans the production, storage or use of chemical warfare agents. He subsequently disclosed an initial list of his production and storage sites to the OPCW, which monitors implementation of the treaty.
The advance team, which gathered Monday in Beirut, includes experts who will help Syrian officials complete the legal paperwork needed to disclose their chemical sites. OPCW officials said Syria submitted documents that were not properly formatted under the treaty.
Western officials said Assad's list, which has not been released, was roughly consistent with U.S. intelligence estimates of his operation.
Assad said his government would comply with the Security Council resolution, which demands that Syria relinquish its chemical weapons by the middle of next year or face unspecified consequences.
"Of course we have to comply," Assad told Italy's RAI News 24 in a televised interview. "This is our history to comply with every treaty we sign."
U.S. officials believe that Assad has roughly 45 chemical weapons sites and that all remain under government control. But insurgent forces hold or contest large swaths of Syrian territory, raising doubts that inspectors will be able to move freely.
The inspectors who investigated an Aug. 21 chemical attack outside Damascus came under sniper fire at one point. But the team ultimately confirmed that rockets filled with sarin were fired into neighborhoods in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, killing more than 1,000 people.
Pictures and videos of the attack sparked a global outcry, and at one point it appeared all but certain that President Obama would launch punitive missile strikes in retaliation. But a last minute U.S.-Russian diplomatic deal led to the disarmament proposal.
Assad has consistently denied that his forces have used poison gas in the civil war, in which more than 100,000 people have been killed since early 2011.