Although Syria has turned over all of its declared chemical weapons stockpile to international authorities, defying expectations that it would not meet a June 30 deadline, the next hurdle is securely destroying the material outside the country. Danish and Norwegian vessels have been tasked with removing the majority of the chemicals from the Syrian port of Latakia, and Italy has agreed to transload some of the cargo from the Scandinavian vessels to one of its ports, Gioia Tauro in Calabria. The material will then be transported to the United States naval ship Cape Ray and other land facilities in Britain, Germany and Finland for the final phase of destruction.
This new phase may be less challenging than transporting the weapons out of an active war zone, but it will require collaboration and responsible handling among some strange bedfellows, including Russia, the US and China. In Syrian territorial waters, Russian and Chinese naval vessels provide security to the Norwegian and Danish ships carrying the chemical weapons from Latakia. Once outside Syrian waters, British and American naval vessels provide security for the remainder of the journey to Italy, where the Cape Ray is to be docked.
It is likely to take four months to destroy all 1,300 tons of chemicals, said Ahmet Uzumcu, the director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is charged with overseeing the removal and destruction program for Syria. In addition, 12 chemical weapons production facilities in Syria are still standing — albeit empty, says the United Nations, but awaiting a decision by the OPCW as to what to do with the plants. It is also unclear if President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is hiding an undeclared stockpile of chemical weapons.
As part of the destruction efforts, none of the chemicals will be dumped in the sea, and protection of the environment, part of the Chemical Weapons Convention, is paramount.
The decision to remove Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal came after an agreement was brokered by Russia and the US for the UN Security Council following a deadly sarin attack in Ghouta, outside Damascus, on Aug. 21, 2013, killing hundreds of civilians. The later removal and occasional cease-fires to safely transport the weapons out of Syria has been unprecedented in the OPCW’s history yet fraught with logistical and political obstacles.
Through a multistep process, some of Syria’s arsenal will be destroyed onboard ships capable of neutralizing the chemicals, which include mustard gas, the precursor chemical to sarin. According to the Cape Ray website, this marks the first time the US will dispose of such highly toxic, or Priority 1, chemical weapons at sea, using two field deployable hydrolysis systems prepared for this particular mission in Portsmouth, Va. In Britain, the chemicals will be taken to Ellesmere Port, an industrial town in northwest England, for destruction, also using a hydrolysis method. A government facility in Munster, Germany, will take part by destroying the effluvia resulting from the Cape Ray and British processes. Finland will be handling the waste as well, through an incinerator method.
Uzumcu has estimated the cost of destroying all the chemicals to be $47 million to $61 million. That amount does not include the cost of installing the hydrolysis system on the Cape Ray or the transportation and disposal of the residual waste.
Ralf Trapp, a former OPCW official who works as an arms-control consultant, said in the National Journal that the technicians destroying the materials on the Cape Ray will have to operate with protective gear and decontamination equipment and be surrounded by radioactive sensors at all times. The process can neutralize 5 to 25 metric tons of chemical weapons a day, but there is always a risk of hazardous waste resulting from the operation. All waste from the hydrolysis process will be stored on board the ship and disposed of at facilities approved by the OPCW, although additional risk remains for byproducts being released into the air.
Unresolved issues, including the use of chlorine gas in the Syrian civil war, need to be addressed by the OPCW. The US is still waiting to evaluate the preliminary evidence of the use of chlorine weapons more recently in Syria before deciding if President Obama’s “red line” has been crossed again. (Chlorine is not banned as a chemical weapon under the Chemical Weapons Convention, of which Syria is a member, but its use is a violation of the treaty.) Regardless, it is likely that the OPCW will be examining more sites in Syria for chemical weapons production in the near future.