The international operation to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal has successfully removed the first batches of chemical weapons agents from the country, the head of the operation said Jan. 7.
The material left the Syrian port of Latakia on a Danish cargo vessel with an international escort, Sigrid Kaag, the special coordinator of the operation, said in a statement. The operation is a joint effort of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United Nations.
At a Jan. 7 press briefing, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki welcomed the “continued progress toward the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons program” but said that “much more needs to be done.”
The chemical weapons agents have been stored at 12 sites around the country, which has been the scene of a fierce civil war for the last three years, and must be transported to Latakia, a Mediterranean port on Syria’s northwest coast. Kaag said the material was from two sites, but did not indicate the quantity.
China, Denmark, Norway, and Russia are providing maritime security, she said.
Denmark and Norway are leading the convoy. In a joint Dec. 6 press release, the Danish and Norwegian governments said the removal convoy would include naval frigates and specialized cargo vessels from both countries. Denmark will lead the operation, and Norway will be deputy commander, the press statement said.
Kaag said the Danish vessel, the Ark Futura, “will remain at sea awaiting the arrival of additional priority chemical materials at the port.”
Syria has declared about 1,300 metric tons of chemical agents. Of that amount, slightly more than 700 metric tons are the “priority” materials, which include key chemical components of nerve agents such as VX and sarin along with a small amount of mustard agent.
According to figures provided by the OPCW, 560 metric tons are to be destroyed aboard a U.S. ship, the MV Cape Ray. The transfer from the Danish or Norwegian ship to the U.S. ship is to take place at an Italian port. At a Jan. 2 briefing aboard the Cape Ray as it was docked in Portsmouth, Va., Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, said that “exactly where and how that [handover] process will take place hasn’t been finalized yet.”
The Cape Ray will be using a technology called the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System to neutralize the chemical weapons agents. In its application to chemical weapons, hydrolysis is a process that breaks down the chemical agent with hot water and a caustic compound such as sodium hydroxide.
Üzümcü Accepts Nobel Peace Prize
Calling the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) a “major triumph in the history of multilateralism,” Ahmet Üzümcü accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Dec. 10 on behalf of the international body responsible for putting the treaty into effect.
Üzümcü, director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said the convention, which entered into force in 1997, showed “for the first time in the history of multilateral diplomacy…that consensus-based decision-making can yield practical, effective, and, above all, verifiable results in disarmament.”
The OPCW has been in the spotlight since Syria announced last September that it would get rid of its chemical weapons arsenal. The OPCW and the United Nations are coordinating the destruction effort.
Syria is the 190th and most recent country to join the CWC, and Üzümcü devoted a good part of his speech to the situation there. But he noted that six countries are not parties to the treaty, and he urged them to join.
“No national interest can credibly outweigh either the security or economic benefits of adhering to the global chemical ban,” he said.
Israel and Myanmar have signed the treaty, but not ratified it. Angola, Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan have not signed it.
In comments in Oslo on Dec. 11, Üzümcü said Angola, Myanmar, and South Sudan are “very close” to joining, Agence France-Presse reported.
The OPCW has verified the destruction of more than 80 percent of all chemical weapons declared worldwide under the CWC, Üzümcü said in his Nobel speech. The week before the speech, he reported to the annual meeting of CWC parties that the United States had destroyed 24,924 metric tons, or almost 90 percent, of its Category 1 chemical weapons, while Russia had destroyed 30,795 metric tons of such weapons. Category 1 weapons are based on chemicals and precursors that pose a “high risk to the object and purpose” of the CWC.
The Russian and U.S. holdings represent the vast majority of chemical weapons declared under the CWC.
The Nobel Peace Prize is accompanied by a cash award of about $1.2 million. In his speech, Üzümcü said the money would be used to “fund annual OPCW awards.”—DANIEL HORNER
Kendall and his colleagues at the briefing repeatedly emphasized that the technology, developed by the Defense Department, is one that the United States has used to destroy the chemical weapons in its own arsenal. The version on display at Portsmouth, however, is different in that it is mobile and can be deployed on land or at sea.
One new factor that has to be taken into account is variations in ocean conditions, known as the “sea state.” Planners have built in extra time to allow for “sea states where we can’t operate,” Kendall said.
UK Role in Destruction
The United Kingdom announced on Dec. 20 that it would destroy 150 metric tons of the priority chemicals. According to a press release from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the chemicals are to be shipped to a UK port and then transported “to a commercial site to be destroyed by incineration.”
Incineration and neutralization are the two main methods of chemical weapons destruction.
In a Jan. 6 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Defense Department spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said the UK effort is “an incredible help” for the United States and the OPCW-UN joint mission as they work to ensure that the Cape Ray completes its mission “as quickly as can safely be done.”
Another portion of the Syrian chemical holdings, as well as the liquid waste from the destruction operations on the Cape Ray, is to be handled through commercial disposal. (See ACT, December 2013.) The OPCW has issued a “call for proposals” from private firms for the disposal work with a deadline of Jan. 19. That portion constitutes about 500 metric tons, OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said Jan. 8. About 120 metric tons of isopropanol will be destroyed in Syria, he said.
Shipboard destruction of the chemical agents became a leading option as one country after another said late last year it would not undertake that task on its own territory. But the United States had begun preparing for the possibility of shipboard destruction in early 2013 and provided funding to develop the mobile hydrolysis units last year, according to the Defense Department.
Under the timetable set by a Nov. 15 OPCW Executive Council decision document, “effective destruction” of the priority chemicals is to be completed by March 31. At the Jan. 2 briefing, Kendall said he expected the Cape Ray to leave Portsmouth “within about two weeks.”
Kendall said the operation would comply with all relevant international and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. The Cape Ray belongs to the Transportation Department’s Maritime Administration, and “[w]e’re going to give the ship back to the Maritime Administration as clean as it was when we got it,” he said.
The start of the loading operation at Latakia came a week after a Dec. 31 deadline set by the OPCW Executive Council for the removal of the priority chemicals from Syria. The missed deadline was the first one since Syria announced in mid-September that it would give up its chemical weapons arsenal.
In the run-up to the year-end deadline, leaders of the Syrian chemical disarmament operation signaled that it might not be met. In a Dec. 17 statement to the Executive Council, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü said that “schedules have been disrupted by a combination of security concerns, clearance procedures in international transit and even inclement weather conditions.”
A Dec. 28 statement by the OPCW-UN joint mission said Syria “needs to intensify its efforts” to make sure it meets its “international obligations.” In his Dec. 17 statement, Üzümcü emphasized that Syria “will be responsible for all the packing and safe transportation of chemicals until they are loaded onto maritime vessels.”
Officials involved in the decision-making on the operation have given generally consistent accounts of the causes for the delays, emphasizing the dangers and difficulties of transporting the chemical weapons agents through a country in the midst of a civil war. Üzümcü has said such factors are “beyond the control” of Syria, the other countries, and the OPCW-UN joint mission, but urged the Syrians to “look at all possible options for risk mitigation.”
In a Dec. 31 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a Russian official said the removal route for the chemical weapons “runs in some stretches close to the Lebanon border and that is where the militants have recently intensified their forays into the Syrian territory operating from their bases in Lebanon.” Responding to Üzümcü’s comment on risk mitigation, the Russian official asked rhetorically, “How is Damascus supposed to mitigate that?”
Russia, a longtime ally of Syria, is providing supplies such as armored trucks for the overland transport of the chemicals to Latakia.
Last September, the United States appeared poised to launch punitive military strikes in response to the alleged use by the Syrian government of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov negotiated a deal with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry under which Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons. The OPCW Executive Council and the UN Security Council subsequently endorsed the plan, setting June 30 as the date by which all of Syria’s chemical weapons should be destroyed. The Executive Council later filled in intermediate dates such as the one for removing the highest-priority chemical weapons agents by Dec. 31.
OPCW and U.S. officials have referred to the dates as “milestones” or “target dates” rather than “deadlines,” a point that U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf reiterated at briefings on Dec. 30 and Jan. 2. At the latter briefing, she noted that the effort involves “trying to destroy all these weapons in the middle of a civil war” and said, “We knew this would take time, but we do need to keep seeing forward progress, and in fact, we have.”
In the Nov. 15 decision document, which set the intermediate deadlines, the OPCW Executive Council gave Üzümcü some leeway to alter the destruction timetable. If he determines “in close consultation” with the countries involved in the destruction 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,” the document says. In his Dec. 17 statement, Üzümcü said he would “keep the Council informed of the progress [of the removal operation] and…promptly communicate any problems that impact the given timelines.”