Revealed: Private companies making a killing destroying Syria's chemical weapons

No country volunteered to perform the task, and there is money to be made from it, says David Usborne

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The Independent Online

The deadly chemical weapons arsenal of Bashar al-Assad of Syria is offering an unexpected boon to private companies who have are being asked to participate in the increasingly fraught effort to destroy hundreds of tonnes of related substances that must be shipped out of the country as part of the international disposal mission.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, based in The Hague confirmed last night that it has invited companies around the world to come forward with proposals to handle and destroy roughly 800 tonnes of toxins, “accounting for the major part of the Syrian stockpile”.  In a press statement it said that the cost of the “destruction activities to be undertaken by commercial companies” is estimated at “€35m (£29m) to €40m”.

The chemicals listed in the invitation, which include organic and inorganic chemicals as well as effluents associated with the mission and packaging, do not, however, include the most dangerous substances such as actual nerve agents or weapons which amount to an additional 500 tonnes. They remain a particular headache for the OPCW after Albania last week abruptly rejected a US request that it offer to host land-based facilities to destroy them..

Commercial companies interested in profiting from the disposal of the less harmful substances have only until 29 November to respond. The accelerated timetable reflects the extreme pressure that the OPCW finds itself under as it tries to meet an end-of-December deadline to remove all of the Assad arsenal from Syria.

The OPCW, which just recently was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize, was plunged into the Syria crisis in the wake of a devastating chemical attack in August that killed hundreds in suburban areas of Damascus that the West quickly blamed on Assad.  To avert US strikes, the regime agreed to a joint US-Russia plan under which it joined the international ban on chemical weapons and agreed to the destruction of its arsenal.

With such little notice, it remains to be seen how many companies might step forward to assist in the process.  One possible candidate, URS Corp, based near Albany, New York, which has played significant roles in the destruction of American chemical stockpiles during the 1990s as well as weapons of mass destruction in post-Soviet Russia. A spokesperson declined to comment on whether it might seek all or part of the contract.

“It’s certainly unusual that they would go out for tender for private companies to destroy these substances,” Ralf Trapp, an independent consultant on chemical weapons disarmament based near Lyons, France, told The Independent.  “But we are in unusual circumstances, shall we say.”  He added: “We are not talking about the chemical weapons themselves, but they are essentially trying to get rid of the rest of the programme.”

The Foreign Office indicated the Government would not stand in the way should a UK company step forward. “We shall have to look at exactly what is being proposed,” a spokesperson said. “There is no objection to them expressing interest and we would expect normal health and safety and environmental regulations to be observed.”

The OPCW is meanwhile is grasping for a Plan B for dealing with the 500 tonnes of deadlier materials - the weapons and nerve agents – that are far too dangerous to put out to tender.  A week ago, the Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, declared in a national broadcast that “it is impossible for Albania to get involved in this operation”.  He made the statement after the capital Tirana saw huge street protests opposing Albania’s participation.

Together with Washington, the agency is exploring the possibility of shipping those agents to a Syrian port – itself a hazardous undertaking in the midst of a civil war – and then attempting to destroy them on board a ship in the Mediterranean using a portable incineration plant recently developed by the Pentagon, which in turn would provide a US Navy frigate to stand guard while the operation was under way.  Even then there would be by-products of the incineration that would have to be shipped somewhere for disposal.

No decision has been reached on the sea-borne option, however, and the OPCW continues to explore other land-based alternatives. Among those involved in the discussions are believed to be Britain, Germany, France and Italy, all of which have facilities capable of handling the toxins.  However, the further any host country is away from Syria itself, the more significant the challenges of actually getting the substances to them would be.

“Russia is another obvious alternative,” Mr Trapp ventured, because of its own experience in destroying weapons of mass destruction, although that too would involve either a very long sea trip or an overland journey requiring that permission be granted from all the transit governments along the way. “Or they might find certain remote territories where it would be easier to set up something,” he added. “Doing this on land would be much simpler.”

There are precedents for transporting deadly chemical agents and weapons very long distances on the ocean.  Most notably, in the late nineties, the US military sent some of its by then prohibited chemical arsenal all the way to the tiny Johnston Atoll in the middle of the Pacific after URS Corp built a chemical weapons destruction facility there.

Nor is it completely unprecedented to dispose of such materials at sea either on a ship or some kind of floating platform.  Several years ago Japan also destroyed hundreds of prohibited chemical bombs offshore.