JERUSALEM — The first operational step of the dramatic United Nations Security Council resolution to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons stockpile was put into place Monday with the arrival in Damascus of inspectors from the UN's Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The UN resolution was adopted after US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hammered out a final agreement on Syria last week.
The inspectors are slated to begin talks Wednesday with the government of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about how to carry out the ambitious — some say impossible — task of dismantling the estimated thousand-ton chemical weapons arsenal Syria has amassed since the 1970s.
It is the first time members of the OPCW have been asked to destroy a nation's chemical weapons during wartime.
The challenge this poses became evident before the advance team even made it onto Syrian soil: The road between Damascus and its airport is so dangerous that they were obliged to land and spend a night in Beirut before driving into the Syrian capital.
If inspectors succeed in their unprecedented disarmament mission, it could bring about a much-needed reduction in the threat of unconventional strikes, both in Syria and the wider region. The conflict has to date killed more than 110,000 Syrians; millions more have fled to neighboring countries.
"If the chemical weapons are disposed of — if — it would lift a serious threat that Israel has faced,” said Dan Meridor, who served as Israel's minister of intelligence until last March. "The threat was always one of a desperate move, but we've had wars with Syria, and there has always been the threat of ‘If you push me, I'll use what I have.'"
In addition, Meridor said, alluding to Iran and others, "this is a big blow to other nations that keep unconventional weapons — and that's good for Israel."
The UN resolution calls for the complete destruction of Syria's chemical weapons and mixing or filling equipment by Nov. 1, and the elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment in the first half of 2014.
However, many diplomats and specialists are perplexed by a schedule that seems unattainable, not to say impossible.
Disarming and destroying chemical weapons is a tedious, time-consuming task, fraught with danger. One example of the time it can take: the United States hopes finally to complete the decontamination of a site where World War I-era chemical munitions were buried by late 2014.
In Israel, Syria's neighbor to the south, experts are observing the process intently.
"There is no chance, zero, that this can happen in one year," said Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism's Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
Speaking with GlobalPost, Karmon ticked off a long list of cases, from Libya to Russia, in which disarming chemical arsenals has yet to be completed — in some cases after decades of work in peacetime conditions.
He isn’t optimistic about success in war-ravaged Syria. "In civil war conditions it won't be possible to do anything," he said.
In the best-case scenario Karmon can imagine — which would include cease-fires and the separation of forces with buffer zones — the job of ridding Syria of chemical weapons it has accrued since early in the term of Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, "would take three to five years at least," he said.
Plus, "No one really knows how much is there," Karmon added.
This point was driven home by Syrian Brigadier General Zaher al-Sakat, a defector from Assad's forces, in an interview with CNN on Monday:
“The locations of most of the scientific research centers in Syria and the storage facilities are known and under surveillance, thus, he [Assad] will give up those centers and facilities for sure without lying. That said however, Bashar al-Assad will not give up the chemical stockpile," he said.
Al-Sakat told CNN that Assad maintains at least four secret chemical weapons caches within Syria, and, as has been widely reported in Lebanese media, that his regime "is currently transferring chemical weapons to Iraq and Lebanon."
Eldad Pardo, an expert on unconventional weapons in the Middle East at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said that the Syrian regime has always kept chemical weapons for "use in desperate moments." By his estimation, Syria has used chemical weapons at least seven times in the almost 3-year civil war.
If Syria is in fact induced to surrender its arsenal, he said, "it will be excellent for Israel."
"Syria has been very cautious in the past 40 years. Neither Israel nor Syria have wanted another war. But if I were an Israel army officer, the knowledge that Syria has gotten rid of its chemical weapons would mean I had one less problem to deal with," Pardo said.
Karmon, of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism, said that at least one positive goal has already been achieved: "The Syrians confessed that they have a chemical weapons program."
He added, "If it goes well, a nation that built its anti-Israel weapons systems on the basis of chemical weapons will now be left without them."
If Syria signs the Chemical Weapons Convention, as it has promised to do, Israel would remain one of six nations not to have joined the agreement.
But in another sign of possibly changing winds, Israel's president Shimon Peres said Monday he is "sure our government will consider it seriously."