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Inspectors confident of completing task of destroying weapons in Syria

| Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, 9:57 p.m.

The members of the international team determining the exact size and contents of Syria's deadly chemical arsenal — and then overseeing its destruction — must wear bulky hazmat suits to protect them from the materials they're destroying and full sets of body armor to protect them from the civil war raging around them.

Although the protective gear makes the job of cataloging and destroying Syria's chemical weapons stores more difficult, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons expressed optimism on Wednesday that its inspectors will be able to fulfill their mission within ambitious deadlines that foresee Syria's ability to use chemical weapons largely eliminated in slightly less than three weeks.

After a week and a half in country, inspectors have seen only two of the more than 20 sites that Syria has admitted contain chemical weapons. U.S. officials familiar with Syria's program have estimated there are actually as many as 45 sites attached to the chemical-weapons program.

With inspectors wrapped in two layers of protective gear, each site will be studied at a slower pace.

Ralf Trapp, one of the original members of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and a former secretary of the group's scientific advisory board, said that even such an apparently routine detail can increase the difficulty of an already tough task.

“Full-protective gear means you're wearing a gas mask, which reduces visibility and the ability to communicate, beyond which, it can get quite hot in the suit,” he said. “Body armor adds weight and further slows you down, and makes it even hotter to work. This means people are slower, and shifts can't last as long, so you need more people to complete the same task. It's an issue.”

Regardless, the initial reports out of Syria indicate progress and even appear to convey a bit of optimism.

Agency Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said the inspection team visited a first chemical weapons site on Sunday and Monday and was at another site on Wednesday.

He called it “the beginning of a difficult process.”

The mission is supposed to eliminate all traces of Syria's chemical warfare ability by the middle of next summer. Of greater urgency, the teams now in Syria intend to destroy the machinery used to mix the chemicals and fill warheads by Nov. 1.

“Some equipment has already been destroyed,” Uzumcu said.

Jean Pascal Zanders, an expert on chemical weapons policy who runs The Trench — a website dedicated to chemical-weapons issues — said that is good news.

“Once the machinery used to mix and fill is destroyed, the chemicals can't be mixed to become deadly weapons and can't be filled into warheads to be used as weapons,” he said. “Once the empty warheads are destroyed, they cannot be used. Once the production is destroyed, supplies cannot be replenished.”

It is very simple, of course, but it's very important. When they finish this work, before the total destruction of the Syrian program, the region is already much, much safer.”

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