Syria and Chemical Weapons Destruction: Increasing Progress

CW Ship Collage By Paul F. Walker, Director, Environmental Security & Sustainability and Charlotte Baskingerwitz, Program Assistant, Environmental Security & Sustainability


Syria’s Chemical Weapons (CW) Destruction Schedule

  • September 14, 2013 – Syria accedes to Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)
  • October 14 – CWC enters into force for Syria as the 190th State Party
  • December 31 – All CW removed from Syria via Latakia port on board Danish & Norwegian ships
  • March 31, 2014 – All “priority chemicals” destroyed on board MV Cape Ray
  • June 30, 2014 – All chemicals destroyed
  • December 31, 2014 – All secondary toxic waste destroyed at commercial facilities

MV Cape Ray

  • US Merchant Marine bulk ro-ro carrier
  • Built 1977
  • Displacement – 35,350 tons
  • 197.5 meters long
  • All self-contained – no release of chemicals or effluents to ocean or environment

Field Hydrolysis System

  • US semi-mobile neutralization system to destroy chemicals with hot water & caustic chemicals
  • Fits in 2 shipping containers, with 15 additional containers for supplies and parts

Challenges to Program

  • Ambitious schedule – First shipment of chemicals out of Syria on January 7, 2014 on Danish ship
  • Trans-shipment – Chemicals will be transferred to the US ship, Cape Ray, in an Italian port yet to be named, “without touching Italian soil,” for first-stage destruction
  • Environmental & public health impacts of on-board destruction – US officials allege that there will be no impacts of hydrolysis to ship’s crew or the ocean environment
  • Second-stage treatment – Hydrolysis will produce 5-10x volume of liquid toxic waste which must be handled commercially, likely by incineration, closed detonation, or bioremediation
  • Security and safety of OPCW inspectors and workers – Shipment of chemicals to Latakia delayed due to violence, and ships protected by naval vessels
  • Funding of inspection and demilitarization efforts – Voluntary trust fund established by OPCW – some $100 million needed
  • Transparency & public outreach – Protests in Italy illustrate need for more transparency


  • Historic step forward for global abolition of chemical weapons
  • First time for CW destruction in a civil war environment – safety & security challenges
  • Green Cross/Global Green continues to play major role in public outreach & information, but with little funding


There was excellent news this week with the first shipment of “priority chemicals,” i.e. precursor chemicals for Sarin nerve agent, out of Syria on a Danish ship.  While the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile has already slipped beyond the December 31st deadline set by the Joint Mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), this first export of Syria’s deadly arsenal is an important step forward for its total elimination, as required under the international Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

Syria joined the Convention as the 190th State Party on September 14, 2013, and it entered into force for Syria one month later, October 14.  The Joint Mission set an ambitious schedule for the safe and permanent destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile: (1) all chemicals removed from Syria by December 31, 2013; (2) all “priority chemicals” destroyed by March 31, 2014; (3) all chemicals destroyed by June 30, 2014; and (4) all toxic effluents eliminated by December 31, 2014.

This process of exporting well over 500 metric tons of chemicals, all precursor chemicals for deadly nerve agents except for some 22 metric tons of mustard agent, will continue for the next month or so on board both the Danish ship as well as a Norwegian ship.  These chemicals will then be transported to an Italian port, as yet unidentified, and moved onto the American Merchant Marine ship, the MV Cape Ray, a 1977 ro-ro (roll-on, roll-off) cargo ship which has been retrofitted in Portsmouth, Virginia with two semi-mobile US chemical neutralization systems on board, for chemical destruction of the toxic chemicals over the next few months on the high seas in the Mediterranean.

It was decided last fall that Syria’s declared stockpile of over 1,000 metric tons of chemical agents would largely be destroyed outside of Syria, given the ongoing violence in the country.  After no European or Mediterranean country would volunteer to import the chemicals for destruction, the US came forth with a scheme to destroy them on board a ship outfitted with two hydrolysis systems.  These so-called “Field Hydrolysis Systems,” recently developed in Aberdeen, Maryland, will mix the Syrian chemicals with hot water and other caustic chemicals, thereby eliminating their potential use in chemical warfare.  This is not unlike what was done very successfully in 2003-5 in Aberdeen to eliminate 1,471 metric tons of mustard agent, and in Newport, Indiana in 2005-8 to neutralize 1,152 metric tons of nerve agents.  Secondary treatment of the toxic liquid effluent, likely 5-10 times the volume of the original chemicals, will be done through commercial operations—likely incineration, closed detonation, and/or bioremediation—on-shore in Europe, the US, or elsewhere.

Several challenges still remain in this historic disarmament process: (1) Chemical neutralization at sea has never been done before, so extra caution must be taken to contain all toxic materials on board and prevent any ocean pollution, banned under several international conventions, and to protect the sailors and workers on board; (2) the transfer of the chemicals between ships in a soon-to-be-named Italian port must likewise be done without any spillage to protect public health and the environment; (3) although there are security concerns around the transport and destruction process, there must be an international public dialogue and full transparency in order to address all environmental, safety, and public health concerns and to hold all parties accountable;  and, (4) the process of destroying some 1,000 metric tons of dangerous chemicals will cost upwards of $100 million, largely paid for through voluntary contributions to the OPCW.  While some 20 countries, including the US, have contributed to date, this remains a small percentage of the CWC’s 190 States Parties.

The complete destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons program is a major step forward to improving global security and sustainability and abolishing a whole class of weapons of mass destruction.  While it will sadly not solve the costly war which continues to destroy the country, this process will hopefully help catalyze a political process to end the war and further limit the current unnecessary killing and violence throughout much of the Middle East.

Follow Paul F. Walker on Twitter @PaulWalkerGG.