Twenty chemical weapons experts arrived in Damascus yesterday on a mission to identify and destroy Syria’s stockpiles of weapons and chemical agents by mid-2014.
The experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are mandated to ensure that by the end of the month Syria can no longer make chemical arms by destroying equipment, empty shells and delivery vehicles.
Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem has said seven of the 19 weapons sites listed by the government are in combat zones, making the team's work difficult as local truces may have to be concluded before the effort can proceed.
The team will also check to validate Syria's disclosure of weapons, and chemicals and their locations are specified before a second group arrives to work at stockpile sites.
An advance team investigating alleged chemical attacks has concluded its work at seven locations and will submit a report at the end of the month.
On the political front, both the government and its opponents have made statements complicating the proposed international conference aimed at ending the Syrian conflict.
Mr Muallem has said government representatives would not negotiate with the expatriate opposition national coalition because it supported US military strikes in response to allegations that the military used chemical weapons against rebel-held areas east of Damascus.
He said the coalition “is not popular in Syria and lost a lot among Syrians when it called on the US to attack Syria”.
Information minister Omran al-Zoubi added further difficulties when he said president Bashar al-Assad, whose removal is demanded by the opposition, could stand for re-election next year. "Syria is staying put: the state, the nation, the people and the president," he stated.
Last week, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, affiliated with al-Qaeda, formed a group of 13 fundamentalist groups, including western-backed rebel Free Army factions, that rejects negotiations with the government. This stance has undermined the coalition which claims to represent all foes of the government, political or military, and has belatedly agreed to attend the repeatedly postponed conference, now set for next month.
In Geneva, UN Development Programme administrator Helen Clark said the situation in Syria threatens the economic well-being of Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey due to repercussions on trade, agriculture, tourism, employment and scarce water resources.
The Britain-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has estimated that 115,000 people have been killed in the 2½ year conflict.