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U.S. to Destroy Key Syrian Chemical Arms
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Daniel Horner

The United States will destroy Syria’s most dangerous chemical weapons, using a mobile technology on board a ship, officials from the international team that is overseeing Syrian chemical disarmament said late last month.

In a Nov. 30 press release, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said the operations would be conducted “on a U.S. vessel at sea using hydrolysis,” a process that breaks down the chemical agent with hot water and a caustic compound such as sodium hydroxide. Hydrolysis is a type of neutralization, which, along with incineration, is one of the two main methods of destroying chemical weapons.

In a separate Nov. 30 statement, Sigrid Kaag, special coordinator for the joint chemical disarmament mission in Syria by the OPCW and the United Nations, said the operation would take place outside Syrian territorial waters.

At a Dec. 2 briefing, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed the U.S. role but provided few details.

There is widespread agreement that removing chemical agents from Syria for destruction elsewhere is the most practical approach, particularly in light of the tight timetable established by the OPCW and the UN. A main reason to take the chemicals out of Syria is the security concerns created by the ongoing civil war in the country.

Destruction of the weapons on a ship became a leading option as no country volunteered to accept the weapons for destruction on its territory. After the possibility of destruction at sea became public, Psaki said at a Nov. 22 press briefing that the United States “and many other countries have responsibilities under the CWC [Chemical Weapons Convention] and the London Convention” and would consider destroying chemical weapons at sea only “if it can be done in a safe and environmentally sound manner.”

She was referring to the 1972 London Convention, also known as the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter. In response to a question about the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, she replied, “I’m certain all of the treaties that are applicable are being consulted through this process.”

Even as the signs increasingly pointed to shipboard destruction, U.S. officials had held open the possibility that another country might agree to accept the weapons on its territory. But that possibility appears to have dissipated. In a Dec. 3 e-mail to Arms Control Today, an official from the OPCW-UN mission said, “There will be no other country. The destruction of the most critical weapons will happen on a US ship.”

Under the CWC, the term “chemical weapons” includes “[t]oxic chemicals and their precursors.”

Schedule Pressure

Under a plan approved by the OPCW Executive Council and UN Security Council in late September, the Syrian chemical weapons are to be eliminated by mid-2014. (See ACT, October 2013.) The plan set Nov. 15 as the date by which the Executive Council was to establish “detailed requirements, including intermediate destruction milestones.”

Albania, which had been cited as a leading candidate to accept the Syrian chemical weapons, dashed hopes that the results of the Nov. 15 Executive Council meeting would include the naming of a country to host the destruction of the weapons. During the meeting, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama appeared on national television to say that the task was impossible for Albania. In the days before the announcement, thousands of Albanians had taken to the streets to protest the idea of importing the chemical weapons.

The U.S. embassy in Tirana, the Albanian capital, issued a statement saying that the United States “appreciates that the Government of Albania gave serious consideration to supporting the international effort to eliminate Syria’s chemical warfare materials in a safe and secure manner” and “remain[s] confident that we will complete elimination of the program within the timeline agreed upon.”

Norway, which had been seen as another leading contender to host the destruction, ruled itself out in late October. At a Nov. 18 meeting in Brussels of EU foreign and defense ministers, Pieter De Crem, the defense minister of Belgium, which also had been frequently named as a potential host, said his country would not take on the task. At the same meeting, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also declined.

In theory, the weapons destruction could take place in any number of countries, as the United States and some other countries have developed mobile units that can destroy chemical weapons through incineration or hydrolysis.

Authorization for Removal

Although the Nov. 15 OPCW Executive Council decision did not resolve the question of where the chemical weapons destruction would take place, it appeared to put to rest a potential question about the transfer of Syrian chemical agents to other countries. The question arose because Article I of the CWC bans countries from “transfer[ring], directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone.”

The September UN Security Council resolution that approved the destruction plan authorizes UN member states to “acquire, control, transport, transfer and destroy” Syrian chemical weapons “consistent with the objective” of the CWC. The accompanying OPCW Executive Council decision, however, does not refer to transfers, leading some observers to argue that the Executive Council would have to take some action to authorize the OPCW Technical Secretariat to engage in an activity that the CWC prohibits. (See ACT, November 2013.)

The Nov. 15 Executive Council decision document reports that Syria, in its Oct. 23 declaration to the OPCW, said the destruction would need to take place outside its territory if it were to meet the OPCW-UN timetable. The council document specifies that mustard agent and certain “binary chemical weapons components” are to be removed from Syria by Dec. 31. Those are the priority chemicals that are to be destroyed aboard the U.S. ship.

All other chemicals must be out by Feb. 5. The one exception is isopropanol, which is to be destroyed in Syria by March 1.

For the mustard agent and binary components, “effective destruction” is to be completed by March 31, and “destruction of any resulting reaction mass” is to be completed “by a date to be agreed by the [Executive] Council.” In a Nov. 19 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Jean Pascal Zanders, a former research fellow with the European Union Institute for Security Studies, noted that the term “effective destruction” does not occur in the CWC and is not defined in the council decision or elsewhere.

All other chemicals that Syria has declared must be destroyed by June 30.

The decision document gives OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü some authority to alter the destruction timetable. If, “in close consultation” with the countries involved in the destruction, he determines that “it will not be possible” to meet the timetable, “he should immediately notify the [Executive] Council, specifying the circumstances, and propose an alternative date for [the council’s] consideration and approval, with a view to completing the destruction as soon as possible.”

In a Nov. 15 OPCW press release on the decision, Üzümcü said it sets “ambitious milestones.”

Paul Walker, director of environmental security and sustainability at Green Cross International, said in a Nov. 20 interview that if the situation comes down to “a choice between arbitrary deadlines and doing it right, do it right.” The timetable for the ultimate destruction of the chemicals is less important than removing them from Syria, said Walker, a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors.

In the statement, Üzümcü said the “timely execution” of the effort depends on “a secure environment.” In remarks to the Nov. 15 Executive Council meeting, Kaag said the mission “is working with the government of Syria to ensure that necessary security arrangements are in place, and we are also in contact with armed opposition groups for this purpose.” She added that the mission was looking for help in that regard from countries “that have influence with all actors…through their lines of formal and informal communication.”

According to the Nov. 15 decision document, Üzümcü is to present the council with a plan “for its consideration” by Dec. 17 for chemical weapons destruction outside Syria, including “provisions for ensuring clear responsibility at each stage for all chemicals.”

The council also specified that Syria “maintains ownership of its chemical weapons until they are destroyed, wherever the destruction might take place” but that “upon removal of declared chemical weapons from its territory, the Syrian Arab Republic no longer has possession, nor jurisdiction, nor control over these chemical weapons.”

Commercial Disposal

The decision document asked Üzümcü to explore options for commercial disposal of certain portions of the Syrian arsenal, and a week later, on Nov. 22, the OPCW issued a document called a request for expressions of interest to determine the level of interest from private firms in the chemical disposal business. It covers chemicals other than the mustard agent and binary chemical weapons components. The covered chemicals total about 800 metric tons.

In an Oct. 25 report, Üzümcü, citing information that Damascus provided, said that Syria has approximately 1,000 metric tons of Category 1 chemical weapons. Category 1 weapons are based on chemicals and precursors that pose a “high risk” to the CWC. That category includes sulfur mustard and the nerve agents VX and sarin. Üzümcü’s report said the 1,000 metric tons were largely in the form of “binary chemical weapon precursors,” meaning that they had not been mixed as they would be when loaded into munitions for use. Üzümcü said Syria reported 290 metric tons of Category 2 chemical weapons. Such weapons are based on toxic chemicals that pose a “significant” risk to the CWC.

Walker said “a few hundred tons” of the 1,290 metric tons of the chemicals that Syria had declared were isopropanol that will be neutralized in Syria.

The request to companies also covers disposal of effluent from the mustard agent and binary chemical weapons components, totaling about 7.7 million liters, according to the OPCW request document.

In its Nov. 30 press release, the OPCW said 35 companies had responded to the request.

According to a Nov. 19 memo from Üzümcü, the cost of the commercial destruction is projected to be about 35 to 45 million euros (about $47-61 million). Üzümcü appealed to OPCW member states to defray the cost through a trust fund he established to cover the Syrian chemical destruction effort.

The cost estimate for commercial operations appears to be the first indication from the OPCW of the anticipated costs of the work in Syria, although it encompasses only one part of the effort. In the memo, Üzümcü said that the cost figure does not include the costs of transporting the chemicals to be destroyed. Those costs are expected to be covered by in-kind contributions, he said.

Facilities Inspected

Earlier in the month, in a Nov. 6 “mission update,” the OPCW said its joint effort with the UN had inspected all but one of the chemical weapons facilities that Syria had declared. In an Oct. 31 press release, the OPCW had reported that 21 of 23 declared facilities had been inspected.

The release said “safety and security concerns” had prevented the team from visiting the two remaining sites.

The most recently inspected site, in the Aleppo region, was inspected “with the support of sealed cameras used by Syrian personnel as per the inspection team’s guidance,” the update said, adding that the OPCW-UN team later verified the location of the site. The team “is now satisfied that it has verified—and seen destroyed—all of Syria’s declared critical production and mixing/filling equipment,” the OPCW said in the release.

In a Nov. 25 update to the Executive Council on the progress of the Syria mission, Üzümcü said the remaining site was one that Syria had declared as inactive. He reported that items previously housed at that site had been moved to “other accessible sites and have been verified” against information that Syria had provided in its declaration. Inspectors plan to visit the site “as soon as conditions permit and following the assessment of the United Nations,” he said

Posted: December 4, 2013