Syria and chemical weapons destruction: Increasing progress

Green Cross International has welcomed the positive developments in Syria of the first shipment of “priority chemicals,” or precursor chemicals for Sarin nerve agent, out of the country, according to Paul Walker, Director of Green Cross International’s Environmental Security and Sustainability programme.

While the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile has already slipped beyond the 31 December, 2013, deadline set by the Joint Mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), this first export of Syria’s deadly arsenal is an important step forward for its total elimination, as required under the international Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

Syria joined the Convention as the 190th State Party on 14 September, 2013, and it entered into force for Syria one month later, 14 October.  The Joint Mission set an ambitious schedule for the safe and permanent destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile: (1) all chemicals removed from Syria by 31 December, 2013; (2) all “priority chemicals” destroyed by 31 March, 2014; (3) all chemicals destroyed by 30 June, 2014; and (4) all toxic effluents eliminated by 31 December, 2014.

Click here for a detailed overview for Syria chemical weapons destruction process

This process of exporting well over 500 metric tons of chemicals, all precursor chemicals for deadly nerve agents except for some 22 metric tons of mustard agent, will continue for the next month or so on board both the Danish ship as well as a Norwegian ship.

These chemicals will then be transported to an Italian port, as yet unidentified, and moved onto the American Merchant Marine ship, the MV Cape Ray, a 1977 ro-ro (roll-on, roll-off) cargo ship which has been retrofitted in Portsmouth, Virginia with two semi-mobile US chemical neutralization systems on board, for chemical destruction of the toxic chemicals over the next few months on the high seas in the Mediterranean.

It was decided last fall that Syria’s declared stockpile of over 1,000 metric tons of chemical agents would largely be destroyed outside of Syria, given the ongoing violence in the country.  After no European or Mediterranean country would volunteer to import the chemicals for destruction, the US came forth with a scheme to destroy them on board a ship outfitted with two hydrolysis systems.

These so-called “Field Hydrolysis Systems,” recently developed in Aberdeen, Maryland, will mix the Syrian chemicals with hot water and other caustic chemicals, thereby eliminating their potential use in chemical warfare.  This is not unlike what was done very successfully in 2003-5 in Aberdeen to eliminate 1,471 metric tons of mustard agent, and in Newport, Indiana in 2005-8 to neutralize 1,152 metric tons of nerve agents.  Secondary treatment of the toxic liquid effluent, likely 5-10 times the volume of the original chemicals, will be done through commercial operations—likely incineration, closed detonation, and/or bioremediation—on-shore in Europe, the US, or elsewhere.

Several challenges still remain in this historic disarmament process:

  1. Chemical neutralization at sea has never been done before, so extra caution must be taken to contain all toxic materials on board and prevent any ocean pollution, banned under several international conventions, and to protect the sailors and workers on board;
  2. The transfer of the chemicals between ships in a soon-to-be-named Italian port must likewise be done without any spillage to protect public health and the environment;
  3. Although there are security concerns around the transport and destruction process, there must be an international public dialogue and full transparency in order to address all environmental, safety, and public health concerns and to hold all parties accountable;  and,
  4. The process of destroying some 1,000 metric tons of dangerous chemicals will cost upwards of $100 million, largely paid for through voluntary contributions to the OPCW.  While some 20 countries, including the US, have contributed to date, this remains a small percentage of the CWC’s 190 States Parties.

The complete destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons program is a major step forward to improving global security and sustainability and abolishing a whole class of weapons of mass destruction.  While it will sadly not solve the costly war which continues to destroy the country, this process will hopefully help catalyze a political process to end the war and further limit the current unnecessary killing and violence throughout much of the Middle East.

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