U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is expressing grave concern about the safety of international inspectors overseeing the destruction and removal of Syria's chemical weapons program -- just as the project enters its riskiest phase yet.
Ban voiced his concerns in a letter to the U.N. Security Council, which provides fresh details on international plans for the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons. A copy of the letter, which had not been made public yet, was posted on the web site of a reporter from Arab language broadcaster Al Hurra. Sigrid Kaag, a Dutch* national who heads the U.N.-backed joint mission overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, will brief the Security Council on Wednesday on Ban's letter.
The joint mission, comprised of 15 experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and 48 U.N. personnel, is preparing the ground for the latest and most perilous phase of the operation: transporting large quantities of chemical agent through a war zone to the Syrian port of Latakia, where they will be shipped by Norwegian and Danish vessels, and then transferred to American vessels for destruction at sea, according to diplomats.
Ban said the U.N. has received assurances from the warring parties to cooperate in the transport of chemical materials. The Syrian government, which will take the lead in packing and trucking the toxic materials to the port, has continued its "constructive cooperation" with the mission while "representatives of the Syrian opposition based in Istanbul have also indicated their support for the safe transportation of convoys containing chemical material."
"Nevertheless, recent fighting in the Syrian Arab Republic shows that the security situation is volatile, unpredictable and highly dangerous," Ban's letter adds. "The Director General of the OPCW and I remain deeply concerned about the safety and security of the joint mission personnel."
Ban voiced particular concern about the safety of the mission's main headquarters in Damascus, saying the U.N. is currently installing "security enhancements" to reinforce protection. All armored U.N. vehicles, he noted, have been equipped with communications and tracking systems, and staff have received extra security training. "Despite these measures, the facility remains vulnerable to certain risks, and the joint mission is actively exploring viable alternative locations to base its activities, should the security situation require it," he wrote.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov struck a September 14 landmark agreement calling for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons program by the middle of 2014.
The pact -- which averted a U.S. strike against Syria in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people -- has largely gone smoothly. The OPCW confirmed on October 31 that Syria completed "the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants, rendering them inoperable."
But the latest phase -- which calls for the destruction of chemical weapons materials outside Syria -- has been dogged by setbacks. Several countries, including Norway and Albania, have refused requests to oversee the destruction of the chemicals on their soil. The United States, which had promised to loan those countries mobile labs capable of converting chemical warfare agents into a far less toxic waste material, has since agreed to destroy the materials itself a sea.
Ban's safety concerns come as the U.N.'s chief humanitarian relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, told the U.N. Security Council behind closed doors on Tuesday that living conditions are sharply deteriorating in Syria. After many delays, the Damascus government has taken modest steps to finally allow relief workers access to some of the country's worst-hit areas.
Syria is facing one of the world's worst humanitarian crises in decades, with more than 9 million civilians in need of assistance, and more than 2.5 million people largely cut off from aid. Nearly 250,000 civilians are living under a state of siege, mostly at the hands of government forces, facing the threat of starvation.
Amos told the 15-nation council that the Syrian government has vowed to lift a few bureaucratic hurdles that have hindered the U.N. relief effort in Syria, pledging to grant 50 new visas to relief workers. On some of the most pressing issues, however, Damascus has given little ground.
"We have seen some modest progress in terms of administrative procedures," Amos told reporters after the council briefing. However, she added, "on some of the more difficult areas -- protection of civilians, demilitarization of schools and hospitals, access to besieged communities and also cross-line access to hard-reach areas -- we have not seen any progress."
Last week, Syria pledged for the first time during the conflict to allow the U.N. to run aid convoys from Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon. "The Syrian government affirmed that it would make every possible effort to facilitate the humanitarian work of the United Nations and international organizations," Syria's U.N. envoy Bashar al Jaafari wrote to Ban last week.
Amos said that Syria had also acceded to a long-standing U.N. request to open humanitarian hubs in three towns, Aleppo, Suwayda, and Qamishli. But she said Syria has refused to permit goods to enter through southern Turkey, a conduit for the rebels' military supplies, but also one of the most concentrated areas of civilian humanitarian need. Amos added, "They see crossing the Turkish border as a red line."
(* An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Sigrid Kaag as a Dane. She is Dutch.)
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