Agency approves plan to destroy chemical weapons outside Syria

Most of Damascus' chemical arms to be dealt with outside the country; no volunteers yet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 6:38am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 6:39am


The international chemical-weapons watchdog agency approved a plan for the elimination of Syria's chemical arms that calls for most of the arsenal to be destroyed outside the country, despite another refusal by one of the nations approached to help with the disposal.

After day-long discussions at its headquarters in The Hague on Friday, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons approved a plan that required the "most critical" chemicals in Syria's stockpile of 1,300 tonnes of toxic munitions to be transported out of the country by the end of next month and the removal of all but one of the other precursors and chemical substances by February 5.

The approval came as Albania turned down a US request to help destroy Syria's chemical weapons, dealing a blow to Washington's efforts to find a country prepared to undertake the politically sensitive disarmament project. Several weeks earlier, Norway rejected the request, saying it did not have the equipment or expertise to destroy the weapons.

"It is impossible for Albania to get involved in this operation," Prime Minister Edi Rama said in a televised address. "We lack the necessary capacities."

Demonstrators and opposition lawmakers had shown strong resistance to the use of Albanian soil to dispose of chemical weapons, a process that would create substantial amounts of toxic waste.

The approval of Syria's blueprint by the chemical-weapons organisation takes the country past another key milestone in carrying out an agreement reached by Russia and the United States in September that calls for the destruction of its stockpile by the middle of next year.

The plan avoids some of the security challenges and environmental hazards of destroying highly toxic chemicals in the middle of Syria's conflict, disarmament experts say. But it raises legal and logistical challenges.

Syria agreed to the plan after US President Barack Obama, supported by France, threatened military action after a chemical-arms attack on August 21 in a Damascus suburb killed hundreds.

International chemical-weapons inspectors inside Syria said this month that they had verified the destruction of 22 of the 23 sites the Syrian government declared had been used for the production and mixing of the banned munitions.

But destroying the weapons and chemicals is far more complex. The arsenal must first be transported through potentially hostile territory inside Syria to a port for shipment overseas.

The plan outlined by the organisation foresees the destruction of one chemical, isopropanol, a precursor for sarin gas, inside Syria itself.

"That makes perfect sense," said Ralf Trapp, a consultant on chemical-weapons disarmament. "You can do it in existing facilities in the military and even in industry. But moving the other precursor chemical for sarin, together with highly toxic sulphur mustard and VX nerve agent, in the middle of a war zone poses a challenge."