International experts in Damascus have begun an unprecedented United Nations-backed mission to oversee the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons.
Experts from the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [OPCW] boarded several U.N. vehicles at their Damascus hotel and drove off Wednesday for their first working assignment since arriving in the country a day earlier.
The international team includes 19 OPCW experts and 14 U.N. personnel. In a statement, the team said it started work with Syrian authorities on securing sites where it will operate, especially in outlying areas.
The team also said it will "soon" begin efforts to disable Syria's chemical weapons production facilities and called for the Syrian government to cooperate. It said the international experts have been "considering the health and environmental hazards" which they may have to confront.
Syria has promised to cooperate with the mission, which the U.N. Security Council approved last month. It is the first time the OPCW is faced with the challenge of eliminating a large chemical weapons stockpile under a tight deadline in the midst of a civil war.
In another move, the Security Council issued a statement Wednesday, urging the Syrian government to give aid agencies "safe and unhindered humanitarian access" to Syrians affected by the country's two-year civil war.
The non-binding statement said Syria should facilitate that access "across conflict lines, and where appropriate, across borders from neighboring countries."
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos welcomed the Council's appeal, saying it could help aid workers to provide supplies to about 2 million Syrians who have been unreachable for months. She said the international community now has the task of turning the Council's "strong words into meaningful action."
The Syrian government has long opposed the direct delivery of aid from across its borders with neighboring states, fearing that such deliveries could end up in rebel hands. Instead, the government requires aid to be sent first to Damascus, from where it has greater control over how the supplies are distributed.
The U.N. Security Council's humanitarian statement marks its second agreement in a week about how to deal with the Syrian conflict. Its earlier legally-binding resolution calling for the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons broke more than two years of deadlock.
The Council set an initial deadline of November for the OPCW-U.N. experts to verify Syria's declaration of chemical weapons sites and destroy its ability to manufacture chemical agents. Syria must then allow all of its chemical warfare stockpiles to be eliminated by the middle of next year.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday he believes the plan is on the right track. Speaking at an investment forum in Moscow, he said if world powers continue working together to support the international mission, they can avoid the need for military action to enforce it.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to give up his chemical weapons under international pressure after an August 21 chemical attack near Damascus that killed hundreds of civilians. The United States and its allies blamed the attack on pro-Assad forces, while the Syrian president and his key ally, Russia, blamed Syria's rebels.
The United States responded to the August 21 incident by threatening military action against the Syrian government.
Russia reacted to the U.S. threat by persuading Assad to eliminate his previously-undeclared chemical arsenal and reaching a deal with Washington to avert military action.