All the dangerous substances from Syria’s chemical weapons program, including sulfur mustard and precursors of sarin, have now been removed from the country after a monthslong process, a Hague-based watchdog agency said Monday.
The announcement marks a diplomatic and logistical milestone. Never before has a country’s entire chemical arsenal been removed from its borders, and now the most lethal chemicals are set to be destroyed aboard a U.S. ship at sea.
Still, some clouds hang over the announcement. Under a U.S.-Russian agreement reached last year, all 1,290 metric tons of chemicals were to be destroyed by June 30. With the final batch removed only Monday, that final destruction could take four additional months.
Potentially more challenging for the international community are reports of recent chlorine attacks within Syria, which opposition forces blame on the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The Assad government denies responsibility.
A preliminary report by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is overseeing Syria’s chemical disarmament, found evidence that chlorine or another pulmonary irritant was used in Syria, but the allegations are still being investigated.
On Monday in The Hague, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü praised the final removal of the chemicals from Syrian turf. “A major landmark in this mission has been reached today,” Mr. Üzümcü said. “There were expected and unexpected challenges along the way, but the OPCW and the member states have been able to overcome them.”
The U.S. has harshly criticised Syria for a series of delays in removing the chemicals, but Mr. Üzümcü said Monday Syria’s cooperation has been “satisfactory.” The mission has also showcased U.S.-Russian cooperation at a time of strain over Russian incursions into Ukraine.
The final stretch has been the most difficult. All but the final 100 metric tons of chemicals were removed and loaded aboard Danish and Norwegian ships several weeks ago. But the roads leading to the site holding the final batch was threatened by rebel forces, a senior United Nations diplomat said, preventing Syrian forces from reaching it.
Mr. Üzümcü said Monday the “security situation” had changed in recent days, allowing the Syrians to move quickly.
About 560 tons of the most-lethal chemicals will now be transported by a Danish ship, the Ark Futura, to an American vessel, the MV Cape Ray, which has been waiting in a Spanish harbor. The Cape Ray will then sail into international waters in the Mediterranean Sea, where a team of American experts will neutralize the substances using a process called hydrolysis, which involves mixing the chemicals with water.
The resulting material, called effluent, will be taken to special sites to be incinerated.
The mission began after a chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb in August that killed about 1,400 people, which Western leaders blamed on the Assad regime. President Barack Obamathreatened retaliatory airstrikes, but Congress balked and the U.S. struck a deal with Russia to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program by June 30 of this year.
The agreement, reached with Syria’s acquiescence, also required Syria to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty forbidding the manufacture, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons.
The unprecedented plan for destruction at sea was crafted when experts concluded it would be too dangerous to try to neutralize the chemicals in the midst of a country engulfed in war. When several nations refused to take the chemicals onto their territory for destruction, the U.S. offered a specially retrofitted ship for the job.
U.S. officials have repeatedly expressed anger that Syria has taken longer than promised to truck the chemicals to its port of Latakia. But in recent weeks, they have played down the significance of missing the June 30 deadline, focusing instead on simply getting the chemicals out of Syria.
Even with the chemicals now outside Syrian territory, questions surround the disarmament mission. Syria and the U.S. continue to argue over the best way to destroy tunnels that housed part of the chemical weapons program, with Syria favoring measures like sealing the doors and the U.S. pushing for more permanent actions like collapsing the roofs.
The OPCW is also looking into possible discrepancies in Syria’s “declaration,” the official description of its chemical weapons program that it submitted upon signing the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Secretary of State John Kerry said it’s important to keep the pressure on the Syrian government. “The worst of the weapons are gone, but the despicable regime and the crisis it has created remain and require our collective focus,” Mr. Kerry said.
Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the chemicals’ removal would help protect Syria’s population from the regime, but added that chlorine attacks, while less deadly, present a continuing threat. “The Assad regime now appears to be using chlorine in barrel bombs dropped from military helicopters on civilian areas,” Mr. Kimball said.
Write to Naftali Bendavid at firstname.lastname@example.org
Did Trump actually know anything at all about world politics before becoming President or was he getting all his news from the media. It is becoming blatantly obvious that he doesn’t have a clue and is making a right fool of himself and take us all into WW3 with idiotic ideas. Does he really have no idea that Syria’s chemical weapons were handed over to the US to be destroyed and that only in ISIS held area they could not be cleared.