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 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international chemical weapons watchdog helping to eliminate the Syrian army's stockpiles of poison gas.
Its inspectors have just begun working in the active war zone, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee said it hopes the award offers "strong support" to 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 chairman 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 achieve that."
Nevertheless, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said he wants the prize to inspire everyone to reach for peace in Syria.
"I truly hope that this award ... will help broader efforts to achieve peace in that country and (ease) the suffering of its people," Uzumcu said told reporters Friday afternoon.
Uzumcu, saying he was "pleasantly surprised" by the award and acknowledging it was a great honor, added that "events in Syria have been a tragic reminder that there remains much work yet to be done."
"The recognition that the peace prize brings will spur us to untiring effort, even stronger commitment and greater dedication," he said.
U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated the group. A White House statement said "this award honors those who make it their life's work to advance this vital goal."
"Today's award recognizes that commitment, and reinforces the trust and confidence the world has placed in the OPCW, Director-General Ahmed Uzumcu, and the courageous OPCW experts and inspectors taking on the unprecedented challenge of eliminating Syria's chemical weapons program," the statement said.
Team in Syria
A team from the OPCW and the United Nations has been in Syria since October 1, and it 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 by a U.N. Security Council resolution 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.
The team is in Syria is made up of 35 members, but the OPCW is preparing to deploy a second team to strengthen the effort. The group plans 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," Uzumcu said.
On August 21, a chemical attack outside Damascus led the United States and its allies to call 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.
The United States estimates the Syrian arsenal 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.