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Middle East

Decommissioning Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile at sea: Cape Ray - the boat that will take 700 tons of Assad's toxic material on its final voyage

The unprecedented programme to destroy Assad’s toxic agents – including the world’s first decommissioning ship – is explained by Steve Connor

A former container ship refitted to become the first seaborne vessel capable of decommissioning chemical weapons on the high seas will this week begin the delicate task of destroying the vast stockpile of nerve agents and mustard gas handed over to the international community by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

The American-owned Cape Ray will be loaded with up to 700 tons of the most dangerous chemicals from Syria’s stockpile at the Italian port of Gioia Tauro. From here it will sail under armed escort to an undisclosed location somewhere in international waters, where the decommissioning will begin in earnest.

Cape Ray has been turned into a floating chemicals-processing plant. Two titanium-lined reactors will work 24 hours a day, six days a week for up to 90 days in order to turn some of the most toxic chemicals known to science into something that can then be treated in a relatively simple manner as hazardous industrial waste.

Last week, the final consignments from Syria arrived by boat at Gioia Tauro in southern Italy. Officially this means there are no chemical weapons left in Syria, although there are concerns that the regime or the opposition forces are still using chlorine gas, a relatively crude chemical weapon.


Reports from Syria last month suggested that chlorine, a toxic gas first used as a chemical weapon a century ago in the First World War, is still being used against the Syrian people, allegedly by being dropped from the air as crude but deadly barrel bombs.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international body overseeing the stockpile’s removal from Syria and its safe destruction, has been unable to confirm the reports for itself. It sent a team of inspectors to Kafr Zita at the end of May to investigate, but they were attacked shortly after leaving government-controlled territory and had to return to their base.

It seems likely from the reported symptoms of the victims and from the accounts of doctors and medical staff that chlorine was indeed used in the region, but the OPCW has not been able to determine who was responsible.

A video uploaded on to YouTube in August 2013 purporting to show a grave containing the bodies of gas attack victims from Ghouta

However, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of British chemical-weapons forces and head of SecureBio, a specialist security company, has little doubt that the responsibility lies with the Assad regime. “In my opinion, Assad sees that chemical weapons have a battle-winning ability and, no matter how crude chlorine gas is, it still has the power to terrify,” Mr de Bretton-Gordon said.

Another unresolved issue between the OPCW and the Assad regime is how to destroy Syria’s 12 chemical weapons production facilities – seven reinforced aircraft hangers and five underground bunkers – which must be carried out under the terms of the disarmament agreement, said Michael Luhan, an OPCW spokesman.

Although the facilities were destroyed functionally last year, the Chemical Weapons Convention stipulates that they must also be destroyed physically. Unfortunately, the convention does not define how this should be done, Mr Luhan said.

“We hope to get an agreement on what that destruction will consist of soon, so we can get on with making preparations for it,” he said.

Meanwhile, final preparations are being made for the 650-foot MV Cape Ray to take its deadly consignment under armed escort from Italy into international waters somewhere in the southern Mediterranean.

The task will be a delicate undertaking given that until now chemical weapons from historic stockpiles have either simply been dumped at sea without being destroyed, or have been decommissioned on dry land. This will be the first time it’s been done out at sea, and a spell of prolonged, settled weather and calm water is deemed essential.

The entire operation is simply without precedent, and the OPCW said it is committed to ensuring that nothing toxic is dumped at sea. After being neutralised by a chemical process known as hydrolysis, the waste effluent will be stored in tanks on board Cape Ray before being transported on to land for final disposal.

“The mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons programme has been a major undertaking marked by an extraordinary international cooperation,” said Ahmet Üzümcü, director-general of the OPCW.

“Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict,” Mr Üzümcü said.

Two miniature processing plants below deck on Cape Ray will work in parallel to neutralise the five “priority” chemicals from the Syrian stockpile. The most dangerous is sulphur mustard, the precursor to mustard gas, and “DF compound”, a component of the deadly sarin nerve agent.

About 130 gallons of liquid chemicals can be hydrolysed at any one time in the ship’s twin titanium-lined reactors, where they will be heated and mixed with neutralising agents, such as a caustic solution to neutralise acidity.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

As much as 50 tons of material can be handled each day at full tilt, although the processing will be slower to begin with, said Adam Baker of the US Army Chemical Biological Center in Edgewood, Maryland.

“There is a ramp-up start. It’s going to be a slow start. We’re going to go very deliberately and safely,” Mr Baker added.

Once the decommissioning is complete, Cape Ray will hold about 1.5 million gallons of hazardous waste effluent, which, although dangerous to health, can no longer be converted into chemical weapons. The waste will then be disposed of by commercial operators used to dealing with such hazardous material, the OPCW said.

“No chemicals or effluents will be dumped in the sea at any stage of the removal and destruction process,” the organisation added.

More than 30 countries, in addition to the EU, have been involved in the task of removing and decommissioning the Syrian stockpile. Naval vessels from Denmark, Norway, the UK, China and Russia have provided security at sea.

Two cargo vessels from Denmark and Norway have transported up to 1,300 tons of chemicals from the Syrian port of Latakia to Gioia Tauro, and to the other countries, such as Finland, Germany and the United States, which will undertake the destruction of lower-priority chemical precursors.

Britain has agreed to take 150 tons of material for processing and incineration at the Veolia Environmental Services plant at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire. The Foreign Office has emphasised that the material will not be “chemical weapons agents” and that it will be destroyed under an existing contract with the Ministry of Defence.

As the decommissioning operation enters its final phase, the OPCW can be congratulated in managing one of the most difficult and challenging assignments in its 17-year history. The mission was unprecedented on many fronts – technically and politically.

Unfortunately, the agreement and the decommissioning has come too late for the hundreds of Syrians who died after being poisoned by nerve agents fired at three towns, Muadhamiya, Ein Tarma  and Zamalka, in the Ghouta agricultural belt around the Syrian capital Damascus on 21 August 2013.