The last of Syria’s declared chemical weapons materials have left that country, Ahmet Üzümcü, director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), announced June 23.
Officials from the countries and organizations involved in the operation hailed the “major landmark,” as Üzümcü called it, in the effort to remove the chemical weapons materials from Syria and destroy them outside the country. But the officials also pointed to a list of remaining questions about Syria’s chemical weapons program.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in his June 23 statement, “We remain deeply concerned by the reports of systematic use of chlorine gas in opposition areas; the Syrian regime has dragged [its] feet on destroying production facilities; [and] the international community has questions with regard to Syria’s declaration [of its chemical stockpile] that must be adequately answered.”
Nevertheless, Kerry said, “this is also an important moment to take stock of what has been achieved,” citing not only the removal of the materials, but also the destruction of chemical weapons delivery systems and equipment to prepare chemical agents for use in such systems.
The process that led to the removal of the chemicals started with Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons last August in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. In response, U.S. President Barack Obama threatened air strikes against Syria. Soon after, the United States and Russia, Syria’s ally, negotiated a framework agreement for Syria’s chemical disarmament, and Syria formally joined the Chemical Weapons Convention as the 190th state-party.
In late September, the OPCW Executive Council and the UN Security Council approved a plan based on the U.S.-Russian agreement, calling for destruction of the Syrian stockpile in the first half of 2014. A subsequent Executive Council decision set intermediate deadlines of Dec. 31 for removal of the highest-priority chemicals and Feb. 5 for the remaining chemicals that were to be destroyed outside the country. (See ACT, December 2013.)
Syria’s declared chemical stockpile of about 1,300 metric tons included about 120 metric tons of isopropanol, which was destroyed domestically. A joint mission of the OPCW and the United Nations has been overseeing the removal and destruction process, but Syria was responsible for collecting the chemicals from sites around the country and bringing them to its Mediterranean port of Latakia for removal by an international convoy.
Syria missed the original deadlines for shipping out the chemicals, as well as a renegotiated deadline of April 27. Syrian and Russian officials blamed the delays on the uncertain security situation resulting from the civil war that has been ongoing in Syria since early 2011.
In the months since the Dec. 31 deadline, officials from the United States and other countries have generally dismissed that explanation. A State Department spokesman said June 24 that the security situation had deteriorated in recent weeks along the route to Latakia from the site near Damascus where the last cache of chemicals had been stored. But the transportation problems created by the worsened security arose because “the Syrian regime did not empty the final site when the environment was more secure than it is today,” the spokesman said.
He said it was “not shocking” that the Syrians moved the chemicals shortly after a June 17 OPCW Executive Council meeting in which the delay drew criticism from many countries.
At the June 23 press conference in The Hague where he made his announcement, Üzümcü described the last shipment to Latakia by saying that “the security situation has changed and the Syrian government decided to move.” In a June 26 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a Russian diplomat said Syria had taken a “calculated risk” by moving the materials even though “the area around the last remaining storage site was infested with militants, making transportation especially dangerous.”
Üzümcü said that although there were “delays in the process,” Syrian cooperation “has been commensurate with the requirements of the decisions” by the Executive Council.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier emphasized the missed deadlines, beginning his June 23 statement by saying, “It may have been significantly delayed, but it is nonetheless complete: nearly six months later than planned, Syria has now had the last of its declared chemical weapons removed from its territory.”
The most recent previous shipment was on April 24. The June shipment involved the last 8 percent of Syria’s declared stockpile, or about 100 metric tons, according to the OPCW.
The high-priority chemicals, including the June delivery to Latakia, have been loaded onto a Danish cargo ship, the Ark Futura. From Latakia, it is traveling to the Italian port of Gioia Tauro, where it will transfer the chemicals to the MV Cape Ray, a U.S. vessel that has been waiting at the Spanish port of Rota. A U.S. Defense Department spokeswoman said June 26 that the handoff was expected to take place in early July and last less than two days.
Once it has the chemicals on board, the Cape Ray is to move to international waters, where it will neutralize the chemicals using mobile hydrolysis units it is carrying. The neutralization is expected to take about 60 days, factoring in time for sea trials, ramp-up to full capacity, and maintenance, the spokeswoman said.
Once the neutralization is complete, the Cape Ray will deliver the resulting waste material to Finland and Germany for further processing, she said. Germany will take the effluent resulting from the neutralization of mustard agent, while Finland will take the effluent from neutralizing the sarin precursor known as DF, as well as solid waste, she said. Syria declared about 20 metric tons of mustard agent, which will be a small fraction of the 500 to 600 metric tons of chemicals that are to be neutralized on the Cape Ray.
In a June 25 report to the Executive Council, Üzümcü said that the Taiko, the Norwegian cargo ship that is carrying the lower-priority chemicals, had arrived in Finland and unloaded the chemicals destined for destruction there. It is carrying the remaining chemicals to Port Arthur, Texas, where it is expected to arrive in early July, the report said.
An OPCW spokesman said some of the lower-priority chemicals that originally had been slated for the Taiko now are on the Ark Futura because of the “premature departure of the Taiko from the maritime removal operation.” Under the original plans, the convoy was to wait until all the chemicals were out of Syria before delivering any of them for destruction. The Taiko left on June 8 “in accordance with [its] schedule…, which was notified to the OPCW at an earlier stage,” the OPCW said in a press release that day.