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West’s focus on chemical weapons ‘a mistake’

04 October 2013

AP

Going in: a convoy of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons prepares cross into Syria at the Lebanese border crossing point of Masnaa, eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, on Tuesday 

Going in: a convoy of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons prepares cross into Syria at the Lebanese border cros...

THE first steps towards dismantling the stockpile of chemical weapons in Syria will be taken this week with the arrival in Damascus of a team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). In many instances, they will have to carry out their duties in war conditions; for the chemical weapons agreement has done nothing to bring the broader conflict to a conclusion, or throw light on the fate of three missing churchmen (News, 31 May).

An initial accord in principle between the United States and Russia on Syria's chemical weapons was followed by many hours of intense negotiations on the details, involving all the members of the UN Security Council. Finally, last Friday night, the council unanimously adopted a resolution that called for "the expeditious destruction of the Syrian Arab Republic's chemical weapons programme, and stringent verification thereof".

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, described the passing of the resolution as "the first hopeful news on Syria in a long time. For many months I have said that the confirmed use of chemical weapons in Syria would require a firm, united response. Tonight, the international community has delivered."

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said that the UN vote was "ground-breaking". Britain, he said, would contribute £1.85 million to OPCW for its Syria operations.

As the international community pats itself on the back for this rare diplomatic initiative that has full Security Council backing, there is unease in the Middle East that the wider conflict in Syria is being neglected. The prevailing mood was summarised by an editorial in an Arab Gulf newspaper: "Reducing the Syrian crisis to the issue of chemical weapons is a mistake the international community will massively regret.

"Syrians did not start a revolution to destroy chemical weapons. They started a revolution for freedom and change, and they will carry on with the revolution, despite being let down by the international community."

Besides the rising number of deaths and injuries, and the endless flood of refugees, the fate of the missing clerics remains unresolved. In August last year, an Italian Jesuit, Fr Paolo Dall'Oglio, went missing in a town in northern Syria which is controlled by the al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (News, 2 August 2012).

Also, nothing has been heard since April from the apparent kidnappers of the Syrian Oriental Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mor Yohanna Ibrahim, and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, the Most Revd Paul Yazigi. There have been contradictory reports over the past few months about the two Archbishops; the online Al Monitor website reported recently that authorities in Lebanon had received "reliable reports" from Turkish government and intelligence sources that the two men were alive.

The head of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch and the East, Patriarch Youhanna X, who is the brother of Archbishop Yazigi, had a meeting in Rome last week with Pope Francis, at which the missing churchmen were discussed.

The Patriarch later told Vatican Radio that he was in contact with governments and other parties to seek the release of the two Archbishops. He said: "Until now, we don't have, unfortunately, any official or sure information about our two brothers. We hope they're still alive."

He said that he had discussed with Pope Francis "the presence of Christians in the Middle East - it's a very important issue now, because a lot of our people are leaving Syria or Lebanon."

When asked about the possibility of radical Islamists' taking power in Syria, the Patriarch said: "We have very good relationships with the Muslim people in general in this area. We live together, we have the same history, the same future - we're like one family."

He said, however, that Arab countries were now witnessing "a new spirit of extremism from some Islamic groups, and we all refuse that - and the Muslim people, they refuse this extremist Islamic spirit."

It was the duty of both Muslim and Christian religious leaders to work with the people of Syria to achieve "a calm life, and peace".

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