Syrian Chemical Weapons Destruction: Update 25

On Monday, July 7, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon notified the United Nations Security Council that the two cylinders that reportedly had been found in rebel territories by the Syrian Armed Forces, and tested by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on June 14, contained sarin gas. In his letter to the UNSC Ban stated that Syrian Armed Forces allegedly seized these weapons in August 2013 from an area controlled by armed rebel groups. OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu did not include in the report the precise date of the Syrian declaration and handover of these two cylinders.  However the report did mention that the Syrian government told the OPCW “the items did not belong to it.” The status of these cylinders, that is, whether they have been destroyed or not, remains unclear, as does any possible relevance to the deadly August 21st chemical weapon attacks in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus.

This new information again demonstrates the many discrepancies and uncertainties concerning the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. Much of the remainder of the UNSC meeting was spent discussing “outstanding business, including the destruction of production facilities, hangers, garages, etc., that need to be destroyed,” according to Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant in attendance at the meeting. “There is also the question of the discrepancies in the original declaration, and that is something that we are pursuing with (the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) and that will be raised again with OPCW this week.”

At this same UNSC meeting, including a video call between the UNSC and the OPCW forming the Joint Mission, it was announced that “successor arrangements” will need to be made once the Joint Mission ceases to exist. Sigrid Kaag, the Special Coordinator of the OPCW-UN Joint Mission updated the UNSC on the process of the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons materials aboard the Cape Ray. Also in the meeting Ban Ki-moon commended the international cooperation and effort both in the forms of funding and of those countries that are actively playing a role in the ongoing maritime destruction operation.

According to the US Department of the Defense the neutralization of the chemical weapons began in Monday, July 7th ,aboard the Cape Ray, just five days after the US ship received them in the Italian port of Gioia Tauro from the Danish ship Ark Futura. Greeks, Cretans, Italians, and others have expressed concern over the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons in the Mediterranean. Despite being conducted in international waters, the chemical neutralization process could impact Greece, Crete, Italy and other Mediterranean countries, should an accident occur. Some Greek scientists have mentioned a fear of the area becoming a “dead zone” in the event of an accident. A former Greek Member of the European Parliament, Kriton Arsenis, said that “the weapons were built by the UK, France, and Russia and the manufacturing companies that produced made millions off their sale. But those countries are not the ones risking public health.” Despite these allegations, US officials have stated, “no vapor or water runoff will be released into the atmosphere or the sea.”

On Wednesday morning, July 9, Veolia Environmental Services in Port Arthur, Texas, received a couple of hundred 55-gallon drums containing Syrian precursor chemicals. These chemicals are to be incinerated at Veolia Environmental, an industrial processing firm which has burned thousands of tons of toxic waste from the US chemical demilitarization process over the past decade or longer. These “Priority 2” chemicals from Syria are standard industrial materials that are used daily all over the world. However, they had been “earmarked by the Syrian government for use” for the Syrian chemical weapons program, and therefore had to be destroyed under the Chemical Weapons Convention. The majority of this group of chemicals was first sent to Finland aboard the Norwegian ship Taiko, while the remainder is to be destroyed at Veolia. These chemicals include hydrogen fluoride and several phosphorus compounds.

Veolia is an industrial incinerator just outside of Houston. This site deals reportedly deals with these chemicals on a daily basis and won one of the bids from the OPCW earlier this year. The Port Arthur facility is perhaps best known for processing the neutralized VX nerve agent shipped by truck from Newport, Indiana in the 2006-2007 time period under strong and vocal regional and local citizen protests. OPCW inspectors and US federal government officials are carefully monitoring the destruction procedure in Texas.

Veolia also operates an industrial incinerator at Ellesmere in Britain which will soon receive “B, BB, and B Salts” (“diisopropyl aminoethyl chloride hydrochloride” and “diethyl aminoethyl chloride hydrochloride”) to be burned. In an OPCW report of July 9, 2014, it was announced that a second destruction facility, Mexichem UK Limited, will now also be used in Britain. The OPCW put this on the agenda of the 76th Executive Council session in The Hague this week which emphasized the need for Syria to destroy its 12 former chemical weapons production facilities, to clarify its official declaration, and to allow OPCW inspectors to continue their fact-finding mission regarding recent allegations of the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon. The US Ambassador to the OPCW, Dr. Robert Mikulak, stated: “Despite the overall success of completion of the removal effort for declared chemicals, [US] Secretary [of State John] Kerry has made it very clear that ‘very serious issues remain to be resolved.’ Syria continued to drag its feet in complying with its obligation to destroy chemical weapons production facilities. The international community has questions that must be adequately answered by Syria regarding the declaration of its entire chemical weapons program. Finally the United States remains deeply concerned by the reports of systemic use of chlorine gas and other chemicals in opposition areas by Syrian government forces.”

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