Syrian Chemical Weapons Update: Week 3

The current delay in eliminating the Syrian chemical weapons is causing concern among Western powers, raising questions of the Assad government purposefully delaying the process.  Yet another deadline was missed on Wednesday, February 5, when 90% of the chemicals were to have been shipped out of the country.   The originally agreed schedule for removal of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile was to have all “Priority One” chemicals, including mustard agent and nerve agent precursors, removed from Syria by December 31, 2013.  All “Priority Two” chemicals, with the exception of isopropyl alcohol, were to be removed by February 5, 2014.  This would total over 1,000 metric tons.  To date, only two shipments have been made totaling 5-10% of Syria’s stockpile.

On Thursday, February 6, the United Nations urged Syria to speed up the transport of the chemical weapons to meet the approved deadline, and the UN Security Council, led by the UK, voiced “growing concern of the slow pace” of removal.  In response to accusations against the government, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad said the government is committed to the agreement.  He claims the shipments have come under attack at least twice by rebel forces as they’ve made their way to the port of Latakia, and the delays have been due to necessary enhanced security equipment and procedures to protect against any further attacks over land in Syria.

A group of arms control and environmental experts, led by Green Cross International’s Paul Walker, sent a letter to United States Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Monday, February 3, calling for more transparency and public outreach in the destruction process.  The letter supports the joint OPCW-UN operation but urges an active dialogue with local communities where destruction will be taking place, including the Mediterranean, UK, and Germany, and regular updates from the MV Cape Ray once the neutralization process begins.  Currently, the MV Cape Ray is en route to the port of Gioia Tauro in southwest Italy where it will meet with the Danish and Norwegian ships which will transport the Syrian chemicals from Latakia; given the growing schedule delays, as well as the ongoing protests in the port of Gioia Tauro, the Cape Ray may stop first in a Spanish port until the Syrian chemicals have all been removed from Syria.

On a related note, the OPCW has confirmed that Libya, the fifth country to join the CWC as a declared possessor state, has completed the destruction of all of its Category 1 chemical weapons.   The first Libyan chemical weapons stockpile, declared by former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddifi in 2004, was destroyed by 2013.  A second stockpile, declared by the new Libyan government in 2011 and 2012,  included over 500 aerial bombs and artillery shells loaded with mustard agent.  This latest demilitarization effort was undertaken with US financial support using a static detonation chamber produced by Dynasafe in Sweden.  Such progress is laudable and shows that even in the face of internal unrest, progress on this front can continue.  Some 850 metric tons of precursor chemicals still remain to be destroyed in Libya.

With the destruction of all Category 1 chemical agents in Libya, four of the eight declared possessor countries have now completed their chemical stockpile destruction programs – Albania in 2007, South Korea in 2008, India in 2009, and Libya in 2014.  What remains of CWC Schedule 1 chemicals includes about 10,000 metric tons in Russia (25% of its declared stockpile), 2,844 metric tons in the US (10% of its declared stockpile), 22 metric tons in Syria, and an unknown quantity in two Iraqi sealed bunkers from the 1990s.