By Ben Brumfield and Laura Smith-Spark
(CNN) — The Nobel Peace Prize has turned the global spotlight back on the conflict in Syria.
The prize committee in Oslo, Norway, awarded it Friday to the international chemical weapons watchdog helping to eliminate the Syrian army’s stockpiles of poison gas, The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Its inspectors have just begun with that work in the active war zone, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded them as they face arduous and life-threatening tasks.
But the OPCW did not receive the prize primarily because of its work in Syria, committee chairperson Thorbjorn Jagland said. “It is because of its long-standing efforts to eliminate chemical weapons and that we are now about to reach the goal and do away with a whole category of weapons of mass destruction. That would be a great event in history, if we can acheive that.”
The Nobel committee could not reach the OPCW to inform it of the win. In posts to Twitter, it requested the chemical watchdog group get in touch with it.
Protocol requires those awarding any Nobel prize not to inform recipients ahead of the prize announcement but instead to get in touch with them parallel to informing the public.
Team in Syria
An team from the OPCW and the U.N. has been in Syria since October 1, and oversaw the first destruction of chemical weapons equipment this week.
On Sunday, Syrian personnel used “cutting torches and angle grinders to destroy or disable a range of items,” the OPCW said. “This included missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling equipment.”
Given the danger the inspectors face, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon this week described the joint OPCW-U.N. mission in Syria as “an operation the likes of which, quite simply, have never been tried before.”
The joint mission is tasked with eliminating all chemical weapons in the country by midyear 2014.
Ban has set out the three phases of the mission: Establishing an initial presence and verifying the Syrian government’s declaration of its stockpiles; overseeing the destruction of chemical weapons; and verification of the destruction of any and all chemical weapons-related programs or materials.
Currently the team is in Syria is comprised of 35 members, but the OPCW is preparing to deploy a second team to strengthen the effort. They plan to grow the team to 100.
The government in Damascus has been cooperative so far, and there is hope they will reach their goal.
“These developments present a constructive beginning for what will nonetheless be a long and difficult process,” OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said.
Chemical weapons attack
On August 21 a chemical attack outside Damascus led the United States and its allies to calls for military intervention in Syria’s civil war — a confrontation that was defused in mid-September, when Damascus agreed to a U.S.-Russian plan to give up its chemical weapons stockpile.
A U.N. Security Council resolution gives Syria until mid-2014 to destroy that arsenal, which the United States estimated at about 1,000 tons of blister agents and nerve gas. The Syrians provided an initial declaration of its stockpile and must submit a plan for destroying the weapons by October 27, Uzumcu said.
The award to the OPCW was intended in part as a message to countries still harboring chemical weapons to get rid of them, Jagland said.
In awarding the prize, the Norwegian committee highlighted the widespread use of chemical weapons in World War I and efforts to stop it since.
In 1925, the Geneva Convention prohibited their use. But during World War II, the Nazi dictatorship under Adolf Hitler employed them to extinguish the lives of millions of concentration camp inmates in the Holocaust.
The Geneva Convention left some loopholes open, though, the Norwegian committee said. It does not prohibit the production and storage of chemical weapons.
That changed in the 1997, when an international convention banning that as well, was instituted.
About the OPCW
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague, in the Netherlands, is the independent implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international arms control treaty.
The Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force in April 1997, at which point 87 states had ratified it — and the work of the OPCW to implement its provisions began at that point.
According to the treaty’s wording, signatories are “determined for the sake of all mankind, to exclude completely the possibility of the use of chemical weapons, through the implementation of the provisions of this Convention.”
Sixteen years later, more than 100 additional states have ratified the treaty. In September, Syria became the latest nation to ask to join the convention. It is due to enter into force in Syria on October 14, when it will become the 190th member state.
Peace Prize background
Last year, the Norwegian committee awarded the peace prize to the European Union as it grappled with the worst crisis since its founding — devastating debt and the threat of disintegration.
The award was a salute to the struggling 27-nation union for its work in promoting democracy and reconciliation since World War II.
It is common for the Nobel Peace Prize to go to organizations.
Other large organizations that have won it include the United Nations, Doctors Without Borders, U.N. peacekeeping forces, the U.N. atomic energy agency, the Red Cross and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
The Peace Prize is the fifth Nobel Prize to be awarded this week, preceded by honors in medicine, physics, chemistry and literature.
On Monday, the final Nobel Prize will be awarded in the field of economics.