The rocky road to disarmament

Roughly 12 months ago, President Bashar al-Assad faced with the threat of a United States airstrike agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and to handover Syria’s chemical weapons (CW) arsenal. Almost a year has passed, negotiation and meditation efforts have faltered, and the killing rages on. Yet, at least the chemical threat has been eliminated. Or has it[1]?

Syria’s arsenal is reported to have amounted to 1,300 metric tons, encompassing sulphur mustard gas and sarin-type nerve agents. As envisioned by the U.S.-Russian agreement that saw the Syrian Arab Republic renouncing their CW arsenal and joining the 1992 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons, the removal of CW was initiated in early January. The destruction of Syrian CWs has been overshadowed by repeated reports of improvised Chlorine bomb attacks by Syrian government troops. These reports were substantiated by a fact finding mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) despite its premature ending following an attack on May 27. In a May update[i][2], Special Coordinator Sigrid Kaag had reported that 92% of the declared CW had been shipped out of Syria, however, she also had to acknowledge that the June 30 deadline for the destruction could not be met. The remaining roughly 100 metric tons remained at one large site. The removal had been hampered by volatile security conditions.

On June 23, Ahmet Üzümcü, the OPCW Director-General, announced[3] the successful loading of the last remaining chemicals (of the officially declared stockpile) aboard the Danish ship Ark Futura. Whereas the Director-General praised the fundamental achievement in a notoriously difficult situation, criticism arose in regards to the delay in the destruction of the weapon producing facilities. Continuing controversy surrounds the known production sites for CW in Syria. Syria’s reluctance regarding the demolition of its weapons producing facilities, a process that should have been completed over five months ago, persists as a major concern for the international community. However, Syria insists on keeping open the latter inoperable production facilities since November 1 2013.

Furthermore, Rick Gladstone writing for the New York Times[4] argued that there were blatant discrepancies between the Syrian declared inventory and what has been documented by international observers. Reports like these and the repeated missing of deadlines on part of the Syrian government calls their commitment to the disarmament process into question and history serves as a cautionary example[5]. In 2004, Libya’s Gadhafi had agreed to sign the CWC and dispose his chemical arsenal. The U.S., the United Kingdom, and the OPCW assisted in the destruction process. The destruction of CW always produces byproducts (effluents) which in turn also have to be disposed. For the Libyan effluents and precursors the disposal process is expected to be concluded in 2016[6]. Besides the extensive time frame, Libya holds another lesson for the international community. After Gadhafi’s government was ousted in 2011, the new authorities reported the discovery of two large storage sites for chemical weapons that had not been included in Gadhafi’s original disclosure[7]. The two tons of mustard gas represented less than 10% of the initially declared total of 24 tons, but were apparently the only ones armed and ready-to-use. The late Libyan discovery cautions the international community against trusting President al-Assad and his commitment to the disarmament process.

Syrian Chemical Weapons Destruction

The long road of destruction[8]

According to the Guardian, seven nations were or still are actively involved in the destruction process.[9] The journey starts at the Syrian storage site, from which the chemicals are transported to the port of Latakia. The risks of transporting the material by road through Syria are theoretically and technically limited, yet the ongoing conflict provided a dangerous backdrop. The Syrian Arab Republic had declared that most of the substances being transported are not the final weapon but precursor chemicals. Transport of such material occurs globally on a daily basis. In Syria, additional security for the convoys was recognized as a priority by all parties and is thus provided by the Syrian army. In addition all containers are equipped with GPS trackers ensuring that none of the material is lost or stolen. In order to cope with a potential spill, the convoy is accompanied by specialist personnel and decontamination equipment, thus reducing the environmental risk.

In the port of Latakia the chemicals are guarded by Russian troops. The material is packed in small containers (a maximum volume of one metric meter) in accordance with the requirements of the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Codes. Before they go aboard all containers are sealed, inspected, x-rayed, and verified. Then, these storage tanks are packed in shipping containers for maritime transport. The cargo ships are Danish and Norwegian vessels, particularly equipped for the transport of dangerous toxic goods. Further onboard capacity in handling potential spills and emergency is added through a special chemical response team. A maritime group provided by UN member states ensures the safe passage of CW out of Syria. Additionally, the Russian and Chinese escort vessels have capabilities to address the threat to the environment in case of a spill.

In the Italian port of Gioia Tauro, the chemicals are transferred from the cargo ships onto other ships and means of transport in order to reach their destruction site. The majority is transferred to the MV Cape Ray. The MV Cape Ray is a modified U.S. cargo vessel specifically fitted for this mission. It has two mobile hydrolysis systems installed across three decks. Per trip it can handle 530 metric tons of chemicals. The eventual destruction of the CW takes place in international waters. Byproducts of the destruction process (effluents) are either shipped to Germany for further treatment and destruction or are if possible disposed by carefully selected commercial parties. However, not all material is destroyed onboard of the MV Cape Ray, some material designated as priority material is destroyed in the UK.

Destruction at sea was chosen as it presented the fastest solution in the given time constraints. The neutralization process nonetheless is conducted in a closed environment and no waste, effluents or other material is allowed to interact with the water or atmosphere. All waste and byproducts are safely stored and securely transported for further processing.

Environmental concerns

During the 1991 Gulf War, leaking and damaged Sarin gas artillery rockets were disposed using an ‘open-air burning pit’ method. A controlled venting of the warheads containing Sarin gas was followed by gasoline fuelled combustion. However, this released large quantities of effluents, partial combustion products, and unburned chemical agents into the air that were subsequently carried downwind. In the Iraq case the large amounts of effluents were redirected to a ground pool and simply left to evaporate. Such a procedure carries obvious risks to the disposal team and the environment not only as explosive charges can fail causing artillery rockets to explode and take off uncontrolled, but also because of the immediate and long-term health and environmental hazards.[10] Nowadays, disposing of CW in burning pits, by explosion, land burial, and dumping them in open water has been strictly prohibited by the CWC, eliciting a more complex and safer destruction process for CW.

The destruction methodology depends on the type of chemical, degree of processing, location of treatment. The destruction approaches can be generally classified as either chemical destruction based (hydrolysis) or thermal destruction based (incineration). The MV Cape Ray employs hydrolysis: the chemical agent is mixed with another chemical and water is added. This degrades or neutralizes the substance to a point where it becomes chemically inactive. A downside to this process is that it leaves behind degradation byproducts and large amounts of liquid effluents. Thermal destruction, on the other hand, breaks the chemicals into gaseous components by burning the chemicals at a high enough temperature to destroy the chemical bonds. Both procedures guarantee that the chemical substance is no longer useable as a weapon and that it is impossible to reengineer it into one.

The OPCW-UN Joint Mission stated that all countries involved in the transportation or destruction had to meet the highest environmental protection standards and adhere fully to the relevant national and international laws. Furthermore, signatories to the CWC are always under obligations to ensure environmental protection in the process of destruction of chemical weapons. In the case of Syria, the United Nations Environment Program had been providing specialist advice and support. Experts have met with officials of the Syrian Arab Republic in Damascus and followed up with relevant ministries concerning related environmental issues. Lastly, UNEP officials also visited the cargo and naval vessels that were involved in the maritime transportation.







[6] CBNW 2014/02

[7] See endnote 5



[10] See endnote 6