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U.N. chemical weapons experts wearing gas masks carry samples collected from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack while escorted by Free Syrian Army fighters in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus August 28, 2013. U.N. chemical weapons experts investigating an apparent gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus made a second trip across the front line to take samples. (Mohamed Abdullah/REUTERS)
U.N. chemical weapons experts wearing gas masks carry samples collected from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack while escorted by Free Syrian Army fighters in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus August 28, 2013. U.N. chemical weapons experts investigating an apparent gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus made a second trip across the front line to take samples. (Mohamed Abdullah/REUTERS)

Surprise, some dismay, after chemical weapons watchdog wins Nobel Peace Prize Add to ...

A once-obscure international organization that was thrust into the global limelight this year when it was handed the task of securing and eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons has won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.

A team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is currently on the ground in Damascus assessing the information provided to them by the regime of Bashar al-Assad and drafting a plan to eliminate Syria’s stockpile – believed to measure around 1,000 tonnes – of deadly nerve agents sarin and VX. Friday’s award was announced just days before Syria is set to officially join as the group’s 190th member state.

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The reaction in Syria to the Nobel decision was notably polarized. A senior Syrian rebel called the award a “premature step” that will divert the world’s attention from “the real cause of the war” while a ruling party lawmaker declared it to be a vindication of President Bashir Assad’s government.

“If this price is seen as if the chemical weapons inspections in Syria will help foster peace in Syria and in the region, it’s a wrong perception,” Louay Safi, a senior figure in Syria’s main opposition bloc, told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Qatar.

Fayez Sayegh, a lawmaker and member of Assad’s ruling Baath party, told the AP the award underscores “the credibility” of the Damascus government. He said Syria is “giving an example to countries that have chemical and nuclear weapons.”

Canadian chemical weapons inspector Scott Cairns has been with the OPCW since 2008, and has been helping guide the team’s mission on the ground in Damascus.

Mr. Cairns, who studied chemistry at the University of Manitoba, told the CBC in September “I think we are truly helping people. These are horrible weapons. There’s no reason to use them in this day and age.”

He added that Canadians are a natural fit to help in missions like the one in Syria.

"We've had a reputation in the world for a long time as being the people to go to for peacekeepers,” he said.

"So I think the comfort level for a number of people was very high that Canadians were involved."

The choice of the OPCW came as something of a surprise. Online betting houses had predicted a win for either Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani education activist who survived a Taliban assassination attempt and later addressed the United Nations, or Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist who has treated more than 30,000 rape victims at his personal clinic in the city of Bukavu.

The Nobel Committee’s choice of the OPCW will likely be seen as an effort to encourage both its role in eliminating weapons of mass destruction, as well as the window for peace talks that opened when Mr. Assad agreed to a Russian proposal to hand over his chemical arsenal. Mr. Assad, whose forces are accused of using sarin in an August attack on a rebel-held stronghold of Damascus, was facing the likelihood of punitive U.S.-led air strikes until he backed down and invited the OPCW into Syria.

Thorbjoern Jagland, the head of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, said that the award was a reminder to nations with big stocks, such as the United States and Russia, to get rid of their own reserves “especially because they are demanding that others do the same, like Syria”.

“We now have the opportunity to get rid of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. That would be a great event in history if we could achieve that,” he said.

Preparations are being made to hold peace talks between the Syrian government and rebels – negotiations that would also involve external actors like the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran – later this year in Geneva.

The choice of the OPCW marks the second year in a row that the Norwegian Nobel Committee has chosen an institution, rather than an individual. Last year’s announcement that the prize had gone to the European Union – which remains in an existential crisis – was met with widespread derision.

The OPCW, based in the Hague in the Netherlands, has 189 member states, about 500 staff and an annual budget of under $100-million.

The OPCW’s win will likely prove less controversial, although many will be disappointed that the prize didn’t go to Ms. Yousafzai, who has inspired millions around the world by continuing her campaign for girls’ education after being shot in the head by a Taliban gunman one year ago this week.

On Twitter, many were quick to note that Ms. Yousafzai was not alone in being passed over by the Nobel Committee. Mahatma Gandhi – who Ms. Yousafzai cites as an inspiration – was also famously overlooked.

The $1.25-million prize will be presented in Oslo on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death.

With reports from Ann Hui, Associated Press, and Reuters

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

 

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