Syria’s stockpile of deadly chemical weapons has now been rendered unstable say the inspectors for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The weapons are now unusable from 21 of the 23 sites that OPCW visited. Two of the sites were considered too dangerous for them to enter, but in these instances, the chemicals and equipment were moved to safer sites to enable the inspection. This means that Syria has met the deadline that was set to effectively eliminate its deadly chemical mixing and production facilities. This agreement was reached to pre-empt proposed strikes on Bashar al-Assad’s regime in a deal that was brokered between the Obama administration and the Russians.
The inspectors have worked at admirable speed, given they only entered Syria on October 1st accompanied by UN officials. Rendering the facilities inoperable has been accomplished in many cases by use of bulldozers and sledgehammers, or by use of concrete, filling containers.
The deadline for the deal was November 1st so Assad has now been seen to fulfill his side of the agreement. The OPCW is satisfied, it declared in a statement, that “it has verified, and seen destroyed, all declared critical production/mixing/filling equipment from all 23 sites.” The world is a tiny bit safer today in the knowledge that Syria can no longer produce its chemical weapons.
This initiative was prompted by the ghastly sarin attack on the Syrian people, perpetrated on citizens who lived on the outskirts of the city of Damascus on August 21st this year. Men, women, and many children died and the footage of their suffering seen around the world caused widespread outrage and condemnation. It was the most terrible, indeed the only, such dreadful chemical attack since the despot Saddam Hussein used poison gas against his own people in Halabja. That was 25 years ago.
Although President Assad blamed the rebel forces for these sarin attacks, the United States and her allies did not believe him, and threatened Assad with the use of force. Thereafter, he was seen to be more amenable to negotiations, and agreed to the disarmament process, and the timetabling of all weapon destabilisation by November 1st.
This is only the first phase of the destruction however. Although OPCW are satisfied that Syria’s weapons are rendered unstable, as confirmed by their inspectors, there is still a lot of hazardous chemical sitting about in that country. And it all has to be got rid of. There is over 1,000 metric tonnes of munitions and toxic agents to be destroyed now, and the next step will be to come up with a plan to safely do this. A meeting is scheduled for November 15th between Syria and OPCW to come up with an effective strategy.
OPCW are working in extreme conditions as the Civil War in Syria continues to rage around them. Despite fears for their personal safety, so far, the Syrians have been co-operative and allowed them to go about their inspections. Over 100,000 people are said to have been killed to date in the bloody fighting, but some say the numbers could be far higher, and the hostility shows no sign whatsoever of easing. Assad’s military continue to bomb the rebels, and activity in recent weeks has been focused on the town of Safira, where they are hoping to flush them out.
So just how will the toxic mountain be got rid of? The method of ammunition dumping at sea, used by all nations at the end of the Second World War, is no longer tenable. There was far less understanding of environmental impact at that time, and a naivety about the depth of the oceans. Leakage from drums of chemicals like mustard gas continue to cause serious problems to this day.
The planet cannot afford for any method of destruction to take place, without it having some consequences to the earth and its atmosphere. Burning, as carried out in giant purpose built incinerators after the aftermath of the Cold War and the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime, is now prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and so is blowing them up.
So what will they do with all these dangerous ingredients of destruction? The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has said that he hopes to move it all onto a ship. They will then have to find a country willing to take the shipment and the task of disposal. The accepted means of dispersal is probably going to be hydrolysis. The chemicals are broken down in this process in hot water and agents like bleach. Finding a willing partner to take on this task may prove tricky. Norway has already declined. All countries want to see this stuff gone, hopefully by mid 20i4, but who is going to volunteer to have this ship tie up in their waters?
That Syria no longer has the capacity to make chemical weapons, and all its facilities for doing so have been made unstable, as confirmed by the OPCW inspectors, is reassuring news. But there is still a gargantuan task ahead in ridding the country of its loathsome load of chemicals.
Written by: Kate Henderson