Revisiting the Syrian Saga: The End is (Still) Nigh

Author’s note: Significant departures or shifts in timeline are bolded. A revised plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons has been announced, though technical details remain to be negotiated with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The physical plan remains largely unchanged, but the original deadlines have been shifted back. The original plan called for most of Syria’s chemical weapons to be removed by the end of 2013 and the remainder to be removed by early February 2014.  Destruction of all materials was slated for June. This revision gives Syria until April to surrender their chemical stockpiles while maintaining the end-of-June deadline for their destruction. The revised plan, like the original plan, will advance in four stages and will involve cooperation from at least six different countries: Denmark, Italy, Norway, Russia, Syria and the United States. Russian involvement does not seem to have been jeopardized by the crisis in Ukraine. In the first stage, approximately five hundred metric tons of mustard gas and binary components for sarin nerve agent will be transported from storage facilities overland to the Port of Latakia on the northern part of Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Russia has offered assistance to Syria in completing this stage of the process. The new plan calls for this removal step to be completed by the end of April. Ahmet Uzumcu, the Executive Director of the OPCW, correctly predicted that the security situation in Syria would cause delays, compounding the difficulties presented by Syria’s stonewalling. The new plan assumes the chemical weapons can be destroyed by the end of June as originally planned so long as they are removed by late April. To date, Syria has surrendered 29% of its chemical weapons material, and that figure will rise to 35% by March 9th. This includes 23% of Syria’s Priority 1 chemicals and 63% of its Priority 2 chemicals. Second, the chemical weapons will be placed on vessels provided by Denmark and Norway and joined by a Russian naval escort. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated, “We will be ready to provide Russian navy ships to escort those vessels with toxic agents in order to provide the safety of this operation.” These deliveries slowed during February after Syria missed its initial deadlines, but the new plan calls for accelerated deliveries throughout March and into April. Third, the Danish and Norwegian vessels will transport the chemicals to the Italian cargo port of Gioia Tauro. The Italian Foreign Ministry has stressed that the weapons would not touch Italian soil, though locals remain wary of the incoming chemical weapons shipments. The weapons will then be loaded onto a Japanese-built roll-on/roll-off vessel that is part of the U.S. Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force, the Cape Ray.  The vessel is being leased by the Navy’s Military Sea Lift Command. Finally, The Cape Ray, which is currently anchored in Spain and awaiting deployment, will enter international waters and neutralize Syria’s arsenal using low-temperature hydrolysis. The ship has been equipped with the U.S. Army’s Field Deployable Hydrolysis System. After destroying the chemical weapons at sea, crews will store the byproducts until they can dispose of them at commercial ports which are being independently contracted by [private firms https:/www.opcw.org/news/article/opcw-receives-tenders-from-14-private-firms-to-destroy-syrian-commodity-chemicals-and-effluents] with the OPCW. Fundamentally, the core elements of the original plan remain in place. Initially, the end-of-June deadline for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons was to be met by removing the entirety of the stockpile by February 6. Having missed that deadline, the new plan sets the end of April as the deadline for the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons. Ten of the twelve chemical weapons storage sites are to be cleared by April 13th, and chemical weapons will be removed from the final two sites by April 30th. The United States will require at least 90 days to destroy the 500 metric tons of Syria’s most potent chemical weapons. Given the April 30 surrender deadline, it may be impossible to destroy all of them by late June. Yet, Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch diplomat leading the international effort, affirmed on March 4 that the June deadline remains attainable. Syria’s delays in giving up its chemical weapons underscore the extent to which the OPCW is dependent on Syrian cooperation. Announcing the new plan, Uzumcu stated that, “The Syrian government has reaffirmed its commitment to implement the removal operations in a timely manner.” In order to secure the Syrian regime’s compliance, however, the United States and the other powers involved in this mission, especially Russia, must continue to press for prompt Syrian compliance with its obligations. The OPCW cannot go it alone.