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.
Experts head to Syria to destroy weapon stockpile