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Chemical-Arms Watchdog Team Departs for Syria

A spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on Friday speaks outside the agency's headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands. An OPCW advance team on Monday left the country to start a mission aimed at auditing and destroying the Syrian government's chemical-warfare stockpile (AP Photo/Peter Dejong). A spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on Friday speaks outside the agency's headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands. An OPCW advance team on Monday left the country to start a mission aimed at auditing and destroying the Syrian government's chemical-warfare stockpile (AP Photo/Peter Dejong).

The world's chemical-weapons watchdog on Monday sent nearly two dozen experts to Beirut, a staging ground for the organization's first foray into civil war-torn Syria under newly approved orders to inventory and destroy all government chemical arms held by Damascus, Reuters reported.

The team reached the Lebanese capital after departing hours earlier from the Netherlands, home to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The expert team -- scheduled to reach Damascus on Tuesday -- includes engineering and chemical specialists, as well as medical staff versed in handling symptoms of exposure to the warfare agents stockpiled by Bashar Assad's government, the Washington Post reported on Sunday.

The 20-person group was expected on Tuesday to start hashing out operational details in consultation with Syrian Foreign Ministry personnel, the Associated Press reported. Next week, more OPCW crews are set to start arriving with a mission to completely eliminate Assad's chemical-weapon production capacity by Nov. 1.

The staffers said making that deadline could involve breaking up mixing gear with sledgehammers, flattening unfilled munitions with armored vehicles, disabling mechanical components by running them without lubrication and setting off explosives near missiles capable of dispersing chemical agents.

"This isn't just extraordinary for the OPCW," spokesman Michael Luhan said. "This hasn't been done before: an international mission to go into a country which is involved in a state of conflict and ... oversee the destruction of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction which it possesses." 

The organization's dealings with Damascus have been "businesslike and efficient" to date. However, it could face a major challenge if an individual government accuses Assad's regime of failing to disclose chemical-warfare materials, OPCW insiders told the Post.

Noncompliance with the disarmament plan finalized on Friday could renew a push by Washington and its partners for punitive military strikes, the newspaper said. Any retributive use of force would require additional backing from Russia, an ally of Assad, under U.N. Security Council terms adopted on Friday.

Israel and the United States believe Damascus excluded least 20 chemical-arms facilities from initial OPCW filings about a week ago, the Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday. Intelligence from spy satellites and other sources indicates Assad's government controls more than 50 installations, some of which are moveable, U.S. government insiders said.

It was uncertain, though, whether Syria's government is trying to hide facilities, or merely limited its initial disclosure to locations with significant stockpiles, according to one of the personnel. An OPCW plan endorsed on Friday calls for additional declarations by Damascus within a week.

Meanwhile, a separate U.N. team on Monday departed from Damascus, ending its second trip to investigate allegations of past chemical-weapons use in Syria. The group is expected to issue a full analysis in late October.

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