Syria has been embroiled in civil war since March 2011, with increasingly unpleasant tactics being employed by all sides. The US and a number of other countries have concluded that the Syrian government was responsible for the chemical weapon attacks, but Syrian president Bashar al‑Assad maintains that opposition forces were responsible.
Following pressure from the international community, the Syrian government joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and in doing so agreed to destroy its chemical weapon stockpiles. The CWC is a multilateral treaty that comprehensively bans chemical weapons, implemented by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) based in the Hague, the Netherlands. The UN set a deadline of 30 June 2014 for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.
Next, an achievable plan needed to be put in place. The CWC stipulates that countries must destroy their chemical weapons on their own territory, but it was rapidly decided this wasn’t feasible in this case. ‘The Syrian Arab Republic proposed that, based on resource limitations and the security situation within their territory, removing the chemicals for destruction outside of Syria was the most viable option available,’ explains OPCW science policy advisor Jonathan Forman. ‘OPCW member states agreed to provide assistance and the current destruction plan was subsequently drafted.’
The destruction plan
In September, the Syrian government declared approximately 1000 tonnes of chemical weapons, mostly precursors, and approximately 290 tonnes of raw materials. The blister agent sulfur mustard was the only complete – or unitary – chemical weapon declared. The nerve agents sarin, VX and VM are instead stockpiled by Syria in a binary manner, meaning two precursors are held and mixed just before use.
The plan is to chemically neutralise approximately 560 tonnes of the most dangerous chemicals – sulfur mustard and one of the sarin precursors (methylphosphonyl difluoride, better known as DF) – at sea aboard the US navy ship Cape Ray. Around 130 tonnes of an aqueous solution of a precursor to both VX and VM (sodium O-ethyl (methyl)thiophosphonate) are to be destroyed at a commercial incineration plant run by the waste management company Ekokem in Riihimñki, Finland.
Approximately 150 tonnes of the second precursors needed to make both VX and VM are to be destroyed at a commercial incinerator run by the environmental services company Veolia at Ellesmere Port in the UK. The VM precursor – diethylaminoethyl chloride hydrochloride – is in aqueous solution, while the VX precursor – diisopropylaminoethyl chloride hydrochloride – is in both a salt form and in aqueous solution.
It was decided to destroy around 120 tonnes of isopropanol, which can be mixed with DF to make sarin, in Syria. This is the only precursor being destroyed in the country and all of it has been verified as destroyed by the OPCW. The raw materials for these agents and precursors will also be incinerated: the organic chemicals at the Finnish incinerator and the inorganic compounds at another Veolia incinerator in Port Arthur, Texas, US.
The effluent from the Cape Ray hydrolysis operation will also be incinerated, but this step is not included in the June deadline. The DF effluent will go to the Finnish incinerator, while the effluent from the mustard hydrolysis will go to a German government run incinerator near Münster. This site is normally used to destroy old chemicals weapons discovered abandoned in Germany.
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