5 Things to Know About Destroying Syria’s Chemical Weapons

The international organization entrusted with monitoring and destroying chemical weapons received a Nobel Prize for Peace today. But it has its work cut out for it still when dealing with Syria's stockpile

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Mohamed Abdullah / Reuters

U.N. chemical-weapons experts visiting one of the sites of an alleged chemical-weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighborhood of Damascus on Aug. 28, 2013

Correction appended: Dec. 11, 2013, 1:40 a.m. E.T.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) received its Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo today, an award bestowed for the Hague-based organization’s 16-year effort to rid the world of chemical weapons. But the prize was granted as much for its achievements — only a few countries, including Egypt, Israel and North Korea, have yet to sign an international convention prohibiting the use of chemical weapons in warfare — as for what remains to be done. Both the U.S. and Russia have missed the 2012 deadline to destroy their arsenals, and the latest signatory, Syria, has only just begun the process. Syria’s President Bashar Assad announced that he would join the convention in September under threat of American air strikes in the wake of a disputed nerve-agent attack that killed hundreds on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21. In October, the OPCW and the U.N., in consultation with the Assad government, set a goal to rid Syria of its toxic arsenal by June 2014, an unprecedented time line made all the more difficult by Syria’s ongoing civil war. With less than seven months left on the clock, some questions — and answers — about what to expect:

What has been achieved so far?
By Nov. 1, Syria had met its first goal to destroy the country’s chemical-weapons-mixing and -filling facilities in 21 of 23 declared sites. OPCW personnel could not safely access the final two, so the organization sent in specially trained and equipped Syrian officials to document the destruction of key machines. On Dec. 6, OPCW announced that all of Syria’s unfilled munitions had been destroyed.

What’s next?
According to the road map, Syria’s stockpile of so-called priority weapons — meaning its 20 metric tons of mustard gas and more than 1,000 tons of the precursor chemicals and raw materials used to manufacture chemical weapons like Sarin and VX — must be removed from the country by Dec. 31. Given the ongoing war, it would be nearly impossible to destroy the chemicals safely on site, so they will instead be trucked to Syria’s Mediterranean coast, loaded onto cargo containers and transported to the specially outfitted U.S. naval vessel the M.V. Cape Ray for neutralization. By Feb. 5, the remaining chemical components must be neutralized, and by March 2014 the production facilities are to be leveled.

Is that road to the coast safe to travel?
It’s dicey. Syrian government troops have just cleared a vital corridor from the capital Damascus to Latakia’s port, but fighting continues, and security cannot be guaranteed. In acknowledgement of the risks, OPCW director general Ahmet Uzumcu has said the removal may be delayed until early January. “There could be some slight delays, but I’m not that worried about delays,” Uzumcu told AFP just before the awards ceremony. “For me what’s important is this operation takes place in the safest and most secure manner.”

How will the chemicals be destroyed?
The Cape Ray, a 200-m cargo vessel, has been fitted with two American-designed field-deployable hydrolysis systems, mobile machines that use heat, water and chemicals to safely neutralize the toxic agents. Once treated, the chemicals are no longer toxic, but they are still considered to be chemical waste and, according to chemical-weapons expert and former OPCW consultant Ralf Trapp, “environmentally unfriendly.” The effluence will be stored below deck in specially lined containers with a capacity for 4.5 million L. The waste product will be eventually transported to land for further processing, though the final destination has yet to be decided. As an extra precaution, it will be treated to ensure that it can stay for years in the containers without risk of corrosion, according to chemical-weapons expert Jean Pascal Zanders, who has been following the process closely on his blog, The Trench.

What could go wrong?
A lot. Russia has offered to supply vehicles to the Syrian government to transport the chemicals from their bases, but the risk of attack by rebels is high. Even though the trucks will not be transporting activated chemical agents (other than the mustard gas), the precursor chemicals are still poisonous. A spill would be disastrous. “The precursors may not be as toxic as the final product, but they can kill,” says Trapp. There is also the risk of capture by rebels or rogue elements of the Syrian military. Turning the precursors into nerve agents is a relatively simple affair that requires the addition of isopropanol — essentially rubbing alcohol. “If you know what to do and how to do it, you would have all the material you need to make a weapon,” says Trapp. “It would be extremely dangerous, but it can be done.”

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a chemical-weapons expert. His name is Jean Pascal Zanders, not Jean Paul.