The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) today announced the completion of destruction of all chemical weapons declared by Syria.
Under the threat of airstrikes, the U.S.-Russian deal with the Assad regime to eliminate Syria’s arsenal was drafted in late 2013 after the deaths in August of that same year of hundreds people from a sarin rocket attack outside Damascus.
Veolia, the US firm contracted by the OPCW to dispose of part of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile, has completed disposal of 75 cylinders of hydrogen fluoride at its facility in Texas.
The need to devise a technical solution for treating a number of cylinders in a deteriorated and hazardous condition had caused delays in the disposal process.
“This process closes an important chapter in the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapon program as we continue efforts to clarify Syria’s declaration and address ongoing use of toxic chemicals as weapons in that country,” said Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of the OPCW.
Ship-Borne Chemical Weapons Neutralization
Also key to destruction of declared chemical weapons was the deployment of the U.S. Naval ship MV Cape Ray in 2014, outfitted with a Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS), a chemical weapon neutralization system originally intended for use on land.
Due to the nature of the conflict on the ground in Syria, U.S. Department of Defense organizations coordinated a rapid redesign of the FDHS into a ship-based system for deployment to the Middle East.
The FDHS operation on the MV Cape Ray destroyed more than 600 tons of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile, including deadly mustard gas and Sarin.
The system uses a tested method of adding water and neutralizer to a chemical to remove its effectiveness, a process already used by the U.S. Department of Defense in its own chemical weapons elimination program, to destroy hundreds of tons of deadly mustard and nerve agents. While the process does produce a caustic effluent, comparable to a powerful drain cleaner, the chemical agent is rendered basically useless and impossible to reconstitute as a deadly weapon again.
Ongoing Reports of Chemical Weapons Use in Syria
Although the destruction of declared materials has been completed, a number of reports over the past 2 years have alleged illegal use of poison chlorine gas by the Assad regime, and a failure by the Syrian government to declare all capabilities.
OPCW inspectors found traces of sarin and VX nerve agent in May 2015 at an undeclared military research site. The inspection-verification process also faced challenges in timely access to some sites due to the unstable security situation on the ground.
According to reporting from the Wall Street Journal, U.S. intelligence suggests the Assad regime may have hid caches of even deadlier nerve agents. If the regime collapses outright, such chemical-weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic State.
Officials do seem to agree that despite ongoing challenges with OPCW compliance, the removal of 1,300 metric tons of weapons-grade chemicals from the region was a positive gain: the security situation would even more dangerous today if those chemicals hadn’t been removed, especially given recent battlefield gains by ISIL.