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 (OPCW) will send a team of inspectors to Damascus, Syria’s capital. Its success or failure could shape whether the United States and its partners push again to intervene militarily in Syria. The organization, which six weeks ago was accustomed to calmer work overseeing the destruction of Cold War-era stockpiles of U.S. and Russian weaponry, has had to shift to war footing as it prepares to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons within 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, embattled 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 say 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.
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But officials at the 16-year-old, Hague-based agency, which has 125 inspectors on staff, say 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 was 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 already 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.
OPCW officials were part of a larger U.N. inspection team on the ground in Damascus on Aug. 21 when a 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.