Syria, Security, OPCW, chemical weapons

Could European protests further delay Syrian CW disarmament?

Open letter from experts on how to avoid that problem

McClatchy Foreign StaffFebruary 4, 2014 

— A dozen chemical weapons and public health experts are urging the United States to increase the transparency of the plans for Syrian chemical weapons in order to avoid possible delays in the vital process because of European protests.

In an open letter to U.S. Sec. of State John Kerry and Sec. of Defense Chuck Hagel posted on The Trench (a website devoted to chemical weapons issues), the 12 experts note that while they believe the plans are well made and intentioned, there are “already clear signs of discontent and anxiety in this respect coming from Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus.  Such opposition could clearly delay or prevent the timely and important mission to safely eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile in 2014.”

The authors, who include Ralf Trapp, the former head of science for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (that is overseeing the destruction efforts), Ambassador Sergey Batsanov, former chief Soviet and Russian negotiator of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and Craig Williams, the co-chair, of the Blue Grass, Kentucky, Chemical Destruction Citizens’ Advisory Board, among many others deeply committed to the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

The letter notes that “the most urgent issue today is to make sure that all relevant chemicals from the Syrian stockpiles are speedily delivered to the port of Latakia and loaded onto the Norwegian and Danish ships.”

This is a phase on which Kerry, among many others, has been critical of the Syrian government efforts to speed along. There are concerns that Syria is dragging its feet, intentionally slowing down the process of delivering their weapons to the Russian controlled port from where they will be shipped for destruction. The concern is that Syria is using such tactics as a bargaining chip, hoping to get money or weapons or materials in exchange for speeding up the process.

But this letter doesn’t address that well known delay. Instead, it focuses on the next step, the plans to destroy those weapons at sea, using the U.S. MV Cape May merchant marine ship. The authors make it clear that they “support the planned technical approach.”

The letter explains: “We understand that sea-based destruction may be a less-risky approach at the current moment than in-country destruction in Syria, reflects the urgency of the matter, and also offers a workable alternative in view of the reluctance of other countries to destroy Syria’s toxic chemicals and binary precursors on their own territory.”

Even so, and even with what they call a system that “will minimize any potential risks to public health and the environment” criticism of the effort is building and could cause further delays.

The letter states that while the information that would assure the public that the process is safe is publically available, right now it is known only to experts in the field. They note, for instance, that while there are 22 metric tons of mustard gas to be shipped off for destruction, there are no loaded chemical arms and no live nerve agents. Instead, there are 540 tons of binary chemical weapon components.

“These facts are not secret and are known to the experts, but in order for the public to be reassured, there is a need for a targeted effort to bring this information and knowledge to local communities,” the letter states. Later, it adds, “Although our review has persuaded us to conclude that the risk of toxic effluent releases to the atmosphere, land, or sea from this operation will be low, we understand why people in the Mediterranean region and elsewhere might respond with suspicion or even opposition to this unique demilitarization of toxic chemicals at sea and in foreign countries.”

While the authors suggest three steps to head off a looming issue, all three are public relations efforts. They state no issues with the technical side. They suggest that those involved in the effort “should immediately schedule public dialogue/forums in Italy and elsewhere in the Mediterranean region to explain the technical processes, to discuss the potential risks and benefits of the Syrian chemical weapons destruction program, and to respond to the questions, concerns, and suggestions of local citizens, regulators, and experts.”

They also suggest that as the process is ongoing, a dedicated website with webcams and daily updates from the MV Cape Ray “should be considered as a confidence-building measure.” 

And lastly, they suggest that especially in place that will receive material for destruction, all parties should “cooperate with any national, regional, or local public dialogue/forums and regulatory hearings that are established to review or oversee these toxic chemical disposal operations.”

The letter concludes by noting that the success in the destruction effort is “much needed” and a public relations effort “will help alleviate public concerns that could otherwise undermine this historic and important demilitarization mission.”


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