DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Inspectors entrusted with the enormous task of overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles began their mission Monday, flying to Lebanon en route to Syria, where their first priority will be to help the country scrap its ability to manufacture such arms by a Nov. 1 deadline.
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, meanwhile, said the government refuses to sit down for talks with members of the main Western-backed opposition groups, putting a damper on U.S.-Russian efforts to hold a peace conference with the two sides by mid-November.
President Bashar Assad has said the government won’t talk to armed rebels and militants — but al-Moallem’s remarks seem to have expanded the government’s list of undesirable talking partners. Previous efforts at bringing the two sides together for talks have failed, and it was unclear what incentive the regime has to come to the table now that the threat of an imminent U.S. military strike has been lifted.
The Russian initiative that averted the strike led to the adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution to have Syria dismantle its estimated 1,000-ton chemical arsenal by mid-2014. The resolution, passed after two weeks of white-knuckle negotiations, marked a major breakthrough in diplomatic efforts since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011.
It also calls for consequences if Syria fails to comply, though the Security Council would have to pass another resolution to impose any penalties.
On Monday, 20 inspectors from the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons landed in Beirut on a private jet, but did not speak to journalists, Lebanese airport and security officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The group is scheduled to travel to Syria Tuesday morning to begin its work.
Inspectors at The Hague said Sunday their first priority is to help the country scrap its ability to manufacture chemical weapons using every means possible.
That may include smashing mixing equipment with sledgehammers, blowing up delivery missiles, driving tanks over empty shells or filling them with concrete, and running machines without lubricant so they seize up and become inoperable.
The U.N. resolution also endorsed the roadmap for a political transition in Syria adopted by key nations in June 2012, and called for an international conference to be convened “as soon as possible” to implement it.
U.S. and Russian efforts are also focusing on holding that conference, perhaps as soon as November in Geneva.
But al-Moallem’s comments put a damper on those efforts.
He said senior Damascus government officials would not sit down to talk with the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group in exile, because it had supported the possibility of a U.S. strike.
Al-Moallem told the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV late Sunday that the group “is not popular in Syria and lost a lot among Syrians when it called on the U.S. to attack Syria militarily, meaning that it called for attacking the Syrian people.”
The foreign minister said other opposition groups in Syria should be represented in future peace talks, “but not the coalition.”
He also lashed out at the rebels when he addressed world leaders Monday at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. He claimed his government is fighting a war against al-Qaida-linked militants.
The opposition coalition’s head, Ahmad al-Jarba, expressed readiness last week to attend talks in Geneva aimed at establishing a transitional government with full executive powers. But other coalition members said they will only participate if they have guarantees prior to the talks that Assad would step down.
Last week, about a dozen key Syrian rebel groups rejected the authority of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, making it less clear than ever who would attend any talks in Geneva.
On Monday, another U.N. team of inspectors charged with investigating alleged chemical attack sites concluded its almost weeklong mission in Syria and headed to Lebanon, where they boarded flights back home. The U.N. said Friday the team was to investigate a total of seven locations.
The team initially visited Syria last month to investigate three alleged chemical attacks earlier this year. But just days into the visit, the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta was hit by a chemical weapons attack, and the inspectors turned their attention to that case. The inquiry determined that the nerve agent sarin was used in the Aug. 21 attack, but it did not assess who was behind it.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed from Beirut.