Chemical arms unit facing a tough mission

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DAMASCUS, Syria -- After weeks of threats and negotiations over Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, an advance team of international weapons inspectors has begun to take the first steps toward dismantling the arsenal. Early indications suggest that they are in for a long, hard slog.

On Tuesday, the day they arrived, a mortar shell crashed down near the Four Seasons Hotel, in one of the most exclusive areas of the capital, Damascus, underscoring the tenuousness of the security situation. A hotel security guard, still looking stunned hours later, held out two pieces of shrapnel he had pocketed, a reminder of the level of difficulty and danger the team faces during even routine business, let alone in carrying out a complicated technical operation amidst a civil war.

There is no outward indication that the Syrian government intends to disrupt the process; indeed, Syrian officials are portraying the deal as a victory that will cement their hold on power. But rebel groups have given no such assurances, and logistics will be further complicated by shifting battle lines and the fact that a third of the weapons sites are in areas outside the government's control.

Syrians on the street showed little interest in the process, instead placing their hopes -- if tentative -- in planned peace talks in Geneva. Whether they support or oppose the government or consider themselves neutral, most seem to agree that dismantling chemical arms is beside the point in a war that has killed well over 100,000 people, the vast majority by conventional arms.

The advance team gave few new details Wednesday about its plans and expectations, instead working quietly behind the scenes to arrange its first steps. United Nations officials said in a statement Tuesday that the team, 19 inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and 14 United Nations staff members, traveled over land from Beirut, facilitated by the Syrian government, "without any incidents."

The inspectors expect to spend the coming days focused on "verifying information provided by the Syrian authorities and the initial planning phase of helping the country destroy its chemical weapons production facilities." The group aims to complete this by Nov. 1, the statement said.

But officials from other U.N. agencies with experience in Syria outlined in recent interviews the sometimes-insuperable obstacles they faced in carrying out the ostensibly less controversial task of delivering food, medical supplies and other relief services to needy Syrians across the country. The officials say that while they and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have been able to regularly reach many contested areas, in some places with growing food shortages they have routinely been blocked by either the government or the rebel groups, or both.

Hopes had been high last week that a U.N. convoy would reach the embattled rebel-held suburb of Moadhamiya for the first time in months, after an initial green light from some government agencies. But the trip did not materialize, U.N. officials said, after the government said military operations were continuing in the area.

The United Nations has also struggled to reach government-held parts of Aleppo, because the route from Damascus passes through areas controlled by myriad rebel groups. Many times, officials say, the convoys have been allowed through by a series of rebel factions, only to be stopped or looted by one farther along the road.

A pro-government Syrian journalist said he was shocked to learn that a number of chemical weapons facilities were in rebel-held areas.



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