Nobody thought it would be easy to transport several hundred tonnes of highly toxic chemical agents on a road that runs through territory fought over by two sides in a civil war. Speaking in Oslo on December 9th, a day before collecting the Nobel peace prize awarded to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ahmet Uzumcu, its head, warned that a December 31st deadline for getting the Syrian government’s most lethal substances out of the country would be “quite difficult” to meet.
Yet much has been achieved. A joint team from the UN and The Hague-based OPCW was sent to Syria two months ago as part of a deal to avert an American missile strike in response to President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons on August 21st. Co-operation from the Syrian government, which has a legal responsibility for implementing the plan, has been all that could have been hoped for, says Sigrid Kaag, a Dutch diplomat who leads the mission. Key milestones for the verification of chemical-weapons stockpiles and the functional destruction of the facilities where they have been produced were met on time (October 27th and November 1st, respectively). Of 23 sites, 22 were visited by inspectors. The one that proved inaccessible because of fighting is believed to have been dismantled and abandoned.
Destruction of unfilled munitions will be completed before the target date of January 31st. At least for now (and assuming there has been no cheating), it is unlikely that Syria has the capacity to make or fill any new weapons. However, by the end of this month, 500 tonnes of nerve agents, such as sarin and mustard gas (known as “priority weapons”), have to be removed for safe destruction. This task is daunting.
First, the weapons must be sealed and packaged in special containers brought across the border from Lebanon by Syrian technicians who have been trained there by OPCW specialists. Then they must be transported by road from multiple sites to Syria’s biggest port, Latakia. Once there, they will be loaded onto ships provided by Norway and Denmark and taken to an American government-owned vessel, the Cape Ray* a 200-metre (650-foot) cargo ship that is part of a reserve fleet used for transporting military hardware. The Cape Ray has been fitted with equipment for breaking down lethal chemical agents into a sludge similar to industrial toxic waste. It will eventually be handled by commercial firms in a number of countries, according to Ms Kaag.
The biggest obstacle is getting the lorries carrying the chemicals through to Latakia, because the highway between Damascus and Homs, which they have to use, remains contested. In recent weeks fighting for control of towns along it, such as Qara, Deir Attiyah and al-Nabak, has been fierce. The first two are in government hands but al-Nabak, some 80km from Damascus, is disputed. A pro-government newspaper, al-Watan, claimed this week that the highway had reopened after 20 days of bloody fighting around al-Nabak, but rebels claimed still to be holding on in parts of the town.
Ms Kaag recently met moderate opposition leaders in Turkey, but despite assurances that they support the safe removal of the regime’s chemical weapons it is questionable whether they have any influence in implementing temporary ceasefires that would ensure safe passage. The OPCW is in the uncomfortable position of relying on the military success of regime forces, supported by local militias led by Hizbullah, the Lebanese party-cum-militia, to meet its timelines. A further 800 tonnes of less lethal industrial chemicals destined for incineration at commercial toxic-waste plants outside Syria must also be transported to Latakia by early February.
Ms Kaag says that although “the situation remains complex and the security situation volatile…we intend to forge ahead.” Mr Uzumcu is equally bullish about meeting the overarching objective of destroying the entire Syrian chemical arsenal by the end of next June. However, the UN’s secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, in a leaked letter to the Security Council last week, expressed his concern both about the “highly dangerous” nature of this stage of the mission and about the vulnerability of the team’s headquarters in Damascus. An alternative base in nearby Cyprus is being considered.
The joint mission has already achieved a lot in a very short time. Ms Kaag describes a week of the current operation as being the equivalent of several months of any other the OPCW has undertaken since its formation in 1997. But there is no guarantee that it can maintain the momentum. The Syrian government has asked the international community to provide armoured vehicles to help it move the chemicals. The request is understandably being treated with suspicion but it might have to be granted if there is no other way of getting the chemicals to Latakia. Russia, an Assad ally, has said it is willing to step in. Working closely with a regime that has done terrible things to its own people has always been morally compromising. It is becoming even more so.
Syria’s war: An inconvenient truth, Economist, Dec. 14, 2013, at 58
*The 648-foot Cape Ray, built in 1977, is generally used to transport vehicles to war zones from the United States. The ship has been outfitted, by Army civilians, with two portable hydrolysis systems designed to neutralize chemicals weapons in Syria’s arsenal.
Under the United Nations-backed plan, some 700 metric tons of chemicals will be loaded into shipping containers and moved to Latakia, a Syrian city on the Mediterranean Sea, where they will be placed onto cargo ships and eventually transferred to the Cape Ray. Once the chemicals are destroyed aboard the vessel, the waste, some 1.2 million gallons’ worth, will be offloaded at an unspecified commercial treatment facility. See Official Homepage of the United States Army