THE HAGUE, The Netherlands, February 10, 2014 (ENS) – Syria’s chemical weapons are being moved to a U.S. Navy ship for destruction in the world’s first mission of its kind. The United States and other countries have years of experience destroying chemical weapons on land, but this is the first time anyone has attempted to perform the destruction on a seagoing vessel.
A third shipment of chemical weapons material was removed from Syria today, the Joint Mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, and the United Nations confirmed. Two shipments of chemical weapons left Syria in January.
The removal of the chemical agents from the country involves transporting them to the Syrian port of Latakia and onto commercial vessels provided Norway and Denmark.
Accompanied by naval escorts from China, Denmark, Norway and Russia, the Norwegian cargo vessel is sailing for international waters where it will be met by British naval escorts. In addition, Finnish experts are onboard the Danish vessel.
The Norwegian and Danish ships are now transporting the chemicals to the Italian port of Gioia Tauro, where they will be transferred to the U.S. Navy’s MV Cape Ray now approaching Gioia Tauro.
The MV Cape Ray left Portsmouth, Virginia on January 27, the Pentagon said, and is expected to arrive in Gioia Tauro within the next few days.
After Syria’s chemical weapons and their precursor materials is onloaded, the Cape Ray will sail into international waters and begin neutralizing them at sea, using hydrolysis.
The Cape Ray houses the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, which was developed by the U.S. military as the crisis in Syria escalated. The engineers who built the system took existing chemical weapons neutralization technology and made it mobile.
Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told reporters the system will neutralize the materials with water and bleach in a process designed to render the chemicals into compounds that are not usable as weapons.
This mission is the first of its kind. The ability to neutralize the dangerous materials in international waters made the disarmament effort led by the OPCW and the United Nations politically possible because none of the countries involved wanted the chemicals on their soil.
Concern over public and environmental safety has already been raised in Italy, Greece, Turkey and Cyprus. But the OPCW explains that there is little cause for concern because under the Syrian chemical warfare program, two toxic substances had to be brought together to create a highly toxic chemical warfare agent. It is these less toxic substances that are the bulk of the chemicals being removed from Syria aboard the Danish and Norwegian cargo vessels.
The chemicals are stored in bulk containers and drums; they are not contained within bombs, shells or warheads and there are no explosives associated with them.
The OPCW says, “Such toxic chemicals are routinely transported around the world and there are specific laws and regulations in place regarding their safe transportation.”
Some 540 tons of key binary chemical weapons components are being removed along with about 22 tons of mustard agent. While mustard agent is a ready-to-use chemical warfare agent, it is also stored in bulk containers and drums, not in munitions.
The German government has confirmed to the OPCW that it will dispose of 370 metric tonnes of effluent that will be generated by the hydrolysis of Syria’s stock of mustard gas aboard the MV Cape Ray.
The effluent will be incinerated at a specialized German government facility. The German government pledged to conduct the incineration “while adhering to the highest safety and environmental standards.”
OPCW Director-General, Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, welcomed the offer as an important contribution to the international task of eliminating Syria’s entire chemical weapons program.
“I wish to thank the Federal Republic of Germany for this contribution, which will further strengthen the impressive collective efforts by our States Parties to remove and destroy Syrian chemical weapons,” said Üzümcü.
In accordance with the decisions of the UN Security Council and OPCW Executive Council, Syria’s chemical weapons are being transported outside its territory to ensure their destruction in the “safest and soonest manner,” and no later than June 30, 2014.
But a deadline has already been slipped on February 5 when 90 percent of the chemicals were to have been shipped out of the country. The OPCW Executive Counci plan approved in November envisions the removal of all declared chemical substances and precursors, except for isopropanol, from Syria no later than February 5.
With respect to activities outside Syria, the Executive Council decided that the destruction of the priority chemical weapons will be completed by March 31 and all other declared chemical materials by June 30.
“The Syrian Arab Republic is encouraged to expedite systematic, predictable and high-volume movements to complete the safe removal of chemical materials,” the OPCW-UN joint mission said today in a note to journalists.
Also today, the OPCW-UN mission confirmed that in-country destruction of some of Syria’s chemical materials has taken place. Syrian declared chemical weapons facilities, will undergo sequenced destruction by March 15, 2014, according to a risk-based criterion.
Despite delays reported by Joint Mission Special Coordinator Sigrid Kaag, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voiced hope last week that the June 30 target date for completion would be met.
The removal of the most critical material for destruction began in early January, in line with an agreement brokered by Russia and the United States under which Syria renounced its chemical weapons material and joined 1992 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons.
The international community insisted on stripping Syria of its chemical weapons after an August 21, 2013 sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in a suburb of Damascus. Western nations blamed the attack on President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Damascus blames rebels for the attack.
The Joint UN-OPCW Mission said today that it “welcomes progress to date” and reiterated its continued close working relationship with the Syrian Government and Member States to implement Security Council Resolution 2118 and decisions of the OPCW.