Syrian Chemical Weapons Destruction: Update 23

On Monday, 23 June 2014, the last 7.2%, about 100 metric tons, of the reported precursor chemicals were shipped out of the Syrian port of Latakia on board the Danish ship Ark Futura.  After a substantial delay of several months, the mix of Priority 1 and Priority 2 chemicals were finally able to be removed from a facility outside Damascus.  Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon of the UN congratulated the OPCW-UN Mission on completing the removal of Syria’s declared chemical weapons while in an active warzone. 

OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu stated that “the mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons programme has been a major undertaking marked by an extraordinary international cooperation” and reiterated that “never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict.”  He continued to say that “while a major chapter in [the OPCW] endeavours closes today [23 June], OPCW’s work in Syria will continue.” This refers not only to the continued investigations into allegations of chlorine attacks used by the Assad government, but also the need for Syria to destroy its remaining chemical production facilities, a process which it has yet to begin.  The Joint UN-OPCW mission will also continue to investigate whether or not Syria declared all its chemicals when it provided the information to the OPCW last year.

With this final shipment, the 19th such shipment since January 7, 2014, Syria has completed its commitment to remove or destroy all of its declared chemical agents and precursor chemicals.  Its originally agreed deadline for removal was February 5, 2014, so this final shipment comes almost five months later.  This delay has caused the June 30th deadline for full neutralization of all Priority 1 chemicals on board the US ship Cape Ray to also now be missed.

In addition to removing approximately 1,200 metric tons of chemicals it declared to the OPCW in October 2013, Syria has destroyed about 120 metric tons of isopropanol in country.   Initially, most of the latest shipment was supposed to be loaded onto the Norwegian Taiko to be transported to Ekokem in Finland and Veolia in Port Arthur, Texas to be destroyed; however, due to the protracted timeframe of the final shipment, the Taiko left Syria for Finland the first week of June.  The entirety of this last shipment was therefore loaded onto the Danish ship Ark Futura, which will meet the U.S. MV Cape Ray in the Italian port of Gioia Tauro to transfer Priority 1 chemicals for hydrolysis.  It is likely that the Ark Futura will continue from Gioia Tauro to transport the remaining chemicals (substances B, BB, and B Salt) for destruction at the commercial facility at Ellesmere in the UK.  The Priority 1 chemicals to be neutralized on board the Cape Ray include about 23 metric tons of mustard agent (HD) and over 500 metric tons of methylphosphonyl difluoride (DF).

It has now been reported that the Norwegian freighter Taiko has reached Finland.  A country director at Ekokem has affirmed that the facility will destroy approximately 130 metric tons of nerve agent precursor chemicals and that this disposal project will pose no risks to local residents or the environment.  The Taiko left the chemicals at the Finnish Port of Hamina Kotka where the containers were checked multiple times after unloading.  These chemicals include triethylamine, trimethyl phosphate, dimethyl phosphite, monoisopropylamine, di-isopropyl aminoethanol, 2-chloroethanol, butan-1-ol, methanol, hexamine, and substance A, according to informed sources.

With the final shipment of chemicals out of Syria, the Ark Futura will now head to Gioia Tauro.  The ship immediately set off from the Syrian port of Latakia and the MV Cape Ray has now left the port of Rota, Spain to rendezvous with the Danish ship, reportedly on July 2nd.  Once the chemicals are aboard the Cape Ray, a transfer process which should take only a day, the hydrolysis process should take between 60 and 90 days.  Workers will first undertake five days of sea trials in the Mediterranean, and will then start the hydrolysis process slowly in order to further test the Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems on board the Cape Ray.  Although these two identical neutralization systems were tested with simulants at Aberdeen, Maryland where they were built, and also went through sea trials off the coast of Virginia late last yer, this careful approach could also delay first-stage destruction a few weeks.

The OPCW revealed last week that Croatia had offered a port of refuge and/or refill if the ship faces particularly choppy Mediterranean waters during the process.  Once the Cape Ray has completed its neutralization process, likely in September or October, it will sail to Finland to off-load the neutralized DF effluent for second-stage incineration at Ekokem, and then to Bremenhaven to off-load the HD effluent for second-stage incineration at GEKA in Munster, Germany.