Roughly half of Syria’s declared chemical weapons have been removed from the war-ravaged country. Whether a midyear deadline for destroying the entire arsenal can still be met is questionable, however, according to the latest report by the international team overseeing the disarmament process.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government initially agreed to hand over its stockpile of nearly 1,300 metric tons of chemical agents by early February to a joint mission of the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). But Syria is nearly two months behind schedule, and the delay has put at risk a June 30 deadline for destruction of the chemicals under a plan approved last year by the UN.
“The deadline of 30 June remains our target,” says Ahmet Üzümcü, director-general of the Netherlands-based OPCW. “We think we can finish the destruction by that time, or close to that time.” This was the first official indication that the deadline might not be met.
The Syrian military is moving the chemicals from a dozen storage sites to the port city of Latakia, where they are being transported out of the country aboard Danish and Norwegian cargo ships.
The most dangerous chemicals—totaling about 560 metric tons, 20 metric tons of which is liquid sulfur mustard agent—will be transferred to a U.S. vessel, the MV Cape Ray, in the Italian port of Gioia Tauro. The ship has been outfitted with hydrolysis units to neutralize the chemicals at sea. That process, which has not yet begun, is expected to take up to 90 days.
Another 600 metric tons of less toxic weapon components will be destroyed at commercial facilities in the U.K., Germany, Finland, and the U.S. This land-based work will also include further disposal of several thousand metric tons of effluent left over from destruction activities aboard the Cape Ray.
In addition, around 120 metric tons of isopropyl alcohol is being destroyed within Syria, a process that is 93% complete, according to OPCW. Equal volumes of isopropyl alcohol and methylphosphonyl difluoride are used to create sarin.