A member of a UN chemical weapons investigation team gets into an UN vehicle in Damascus (Reuters)
Experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will be on the ground in Syria as early as Tuesday 1 October to begin inspecting the Assad government's stockpile of deadly materials.
The OPCW inspections will begin after agreement was reached by the organisation's Executive Council at The Hague, when all 41 members voted unanimously to authorise the inspections. That immediately enabled the UN assembly in New York to adopt a binding resolution that Syria must dispose of its chemical weapons.
The UN deal became possible only due to co-operation between the US and Russia, who co-authored the draft document.
Describing the vote as historic, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon implored the Syrians to implement the resolution without delay. He said: "Today's historic resolution is the first hopeful news on Syria in a long time."
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also hailed the resolution, leading to hopes it could usher in a new mood of international agreement to end the conflict in Syria, which has claimed over 110,000 civilian lives, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Jaafari said the resolution addressed most of his government's concerns, but stressed that countries aiding Syrian rebels should also abide by the document.
Despite the diplomatic breakthrough, practical implementation of the resolution may prove difficult. The task of physically checking the chemical weapons falls on the OPCW, a small, underfunded organisation that has already called for financial support from members of the security council to enable it to carry out its mission.
The Syrian government is believed to possess at least 1,000 tonnes of sarin, plus mustard gas and other nerve agents, widely spread across government sites. Bashir Assad's regime have claimed that rebels are also using chemical weapons, and might even have been behind the atrocity in Ghouta on 21 August in which up to 1,400 civilians died - claims rejected by the US and Britain.
Under the terms of the UN agreement Syria must have destroyed all its chemical weapons by 1 November 2013 - as well as all linked mixing/filling facilities. Failure to do so could lead to a further resolution authorising the use of force, though persuading the Russians to agree to that might prove a harder sell.
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