DAMASCUS // Inspectors entrusted with overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons began their mission on Monday, flying to Lebanon en route to Syria, as another group wrapped up their investigation of alleged past chemical weapons attacks.
Syria’s foreign minister Walid Moallem, meanwhile, said his government refused to sit down for talks with the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the main western-backed opposition group, putting a damper on US-Russian efforts to hold a peace conference with the two sides by mid-November.
Twenty inspectors from the Netherlands-based Organisation 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 group is scheduled to begin work in Syria on Tuesday.
Inspectors at The Hague said their first priority was to scrap its ability to manufacture chemical weapons by a November 1 deadline, 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 inspectors are working under a UN Security Council resolution to have Syria dismantle an estimated 1,000 tonnes of chemical weapons by mid-2014. The resolution, passed on Friday, also calls for consequences if Syria fails to comply, though the council would have to pass another resolution to impose any penalties.
It 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.
But Mr Moallem’s comments put a damper on those efforts.
He said Damascus officials would not sit down to talk with the SNC because it had supported the possibility of punitive US strikes on Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons against civilans on August 21 that Washington says was carried put by the regime.
Mr Moallem told the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV on Sunday that the group “is not popular in Syria and lost a lot among Syrians when it called on the US to attack Syria militarily”.
He said other opposition groups in Syria should be represented in future peace talks, “but not the coalition”.
Mr Moallem also lashed out at the rebels when he addressed world leaders on Monday at the UN General Assembly in New York. He claimed his government was fighting a war against Al Qaeda-linked militants.
The SNC’s president, Ahmad 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 would only participate if they have guarantees that Mr Al Assad would step down.
Last week, about a dozen key Syrian rebel groups rejected the authority of the SNC, making it less clear than ever who would attend any talks in Geneva.
* Associated Press