According to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) the most challenging phase towards the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons has just ended with the removal of the last declared precursors and other chemicals from Syrian soil. This first step was constantly delayed in spite of a good knowledge of the associated risks and the participation by numerous State Parties of the OPCW Convention.
However, the next step will enter into unknown territory. The plan is to neutralise 20 metric tonnes of mustard agent and 540 metric tonnes of sarin precursor at sea.
The US Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS) will be used for the first time in real time operations aboard the MV Cape Ray. This mobile platform has only been tested on land and at sea with surrogates.(1) This is an unprecedented operation. The industrial phase will be preceded by the trans-shipment of Syrian chemical weapons from the Danish Ark Futura, to the United States Cape Ray in the Italian port Gioia Tauro. No real time trial period to verify the chemical process will be carried out. The MV Cape Ray will be positioned in Mediterranean international waters, the exact location or locations are known only to US authorities. From the word go the treatment of the most hazardous substances from Syrian chemical agents will be carried out 24/7 for 60 to 90 days.
Beyond the technical and environmental uncertainties the industrial process could be disturbed by weather conditions. It was originally planned that all the operations at sea would be terminated by the end of June. According to the authorities all operations must stop if the MV Cape Ray is subject to a 5° list. The current plan could extend the sea operations well into the month of September and October. Therefore, the MV Cape Ray could be subject to rough sea conditions. The American experts and OPCW attempt to assure the public, neighbouring countries and Robin des Bois by noting that the floating industrial plant could be moved towards calmer seas.
In the case of an accident the fleet of battle ships circling the MV Cape Ray will substitute a port of refuge and will be equipped to address environmental contamination. The entire sea based mission on board the MV Cape Ray will be under the responsibility of the US Navy, therefore the United States assumes all liabilities in the case of an accident. According to the OPCW if repairs or supplies are needed Croatia has offered a port.
According to the text of the Convention all State Parties or in the case of Syria assisting State Parties must assign the highest priority to safety and the environment. In Robin des Bois’ opinion this is obviously deploying the mobile unit on land or destroying the chemical weapons with tested and proven equipment on land where the risks are known, reduced and controllable.
(1) Nina Notman, ‘Chemistry World’ 21, May 2014.