Syria completed the functional destruction of all critical equipment at its declared chemical-weapons production and mixing locations, even though inspectors could not visit two sites in the civil war-torn country, international overseers on Thursday said in a statement.
President Bashar Assad's forces successfully rendered inoperable such equipment from the government's 41 declared chemical-arms facilities before a Nov. 1 deadline, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and United Nations, which are overseeing the disarmament activities. Though ongoing fighting kept international inspectors from visiting two of the 23 separate chemical-arms sites Syria disclosed, the chemical-weapons body said the Assad regime "declared those sites as abandoned and [said] that the chemical weapons program items they contained were moved to other declared sites, which were inspected."
One of the remaining sites is near the Syrian capital of Damascus and the other is in the embattled area around the northern city of Aleppo, OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan told the New York Times.
"Access to both sites would be extremely risky," Luhan said.
The Syrian government in September agreed to accept the destruction of its chemical-weapons arsenal and to join the Chemical Weapons Convention. The move came as the United States weighed a military strike against the country following the Assad regime's widely assumed Aug. 21 sarin gas attack on its citizens. The chemical-weapons watchdog agency then launched an ambitious effort to inventory and remove the Syrian chemical arsenal by mid-2014.
The Mideast nation faced a deadline set by the OPCW Executive Council to "complete as soon as possible and in any case not later than 1 November 2013, the destruction of chemical weapons production and mixing/filling equipment."
"The Joint Mission is now satisfied that it has verified -- and seen destroyed -- all of Syria’s declared critical production and mixing/filling equipment," the OPCW statement said.
No further inspections currently are planned by the OPCW-U.N. team, which first arrived in Syria on Oct. 1. A group of eight of its inspectors has returned to the OPCW headquarters in the Netherlands, the chemical-weapons organization said on Thursday.
They fulfilled "the most challenging mission ever undertaken by this organization,” said Ahmet Üzümcü, director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize this year.
Meanwhile, questions remain about whether the Assad government truly disclosed all locations tied to its stocks of sarin nerve agent and mustard gas, according to the Washington Post. U.S. security officials still are assessing how Syria's declaration that it has 23 chemical-arms sites jibes with their estimates that the country has closer to 45 locations. However, OPCW and European security officials believe the Syrian government's declaration is "relatively complete," the Post reported.
Üzümcü provided some details on the Syrian operation in his first monthly report on the activities, dated Nov. 5. In it he says Syria's declared facilities include eight mobile-filling units. Also, the document discloses that the United States and four other nations -- Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland -- have contributed millions of dollars for the destruction effort.
The next big deadline in the daunting task of eliminating Syria's 1,000-plus metric tons of toxic agents and munitions will be Nov. 15, by when the OPCW Executive Council is due to approve a detailed destruction plan submitted by Assad's government. The actual destruction of the chemicals is expected to take place outside of Syria, though it remains to be seen which country or countries will help with the effort. Albania is a serious contender, Global Security Newswire has reported.
Sigrid Kaag, the special coordinator for the U.N.-OPCW mission in Syria, by Friday is expected to visit Russia, which brokered the deal with the United States for Syria to relinquish its chemical arms, ITAR-TASS reported. She will meet with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov for unspecified discussions. Russia, for its part, has said it will not accept the chemical arms.