Syria's Chemical Weapons Destruction: It takes a Flotilla

In a few weeks, the U.S. vessel Cape Ray will set sail for the Mediterranean.  This 648-foot long ship will be engaged in serious business once it reaches its destination: destroying some 700 tons of Syrian chemical weapons. 

Q1: What's happening now?

A1: Under international pressure and following reports of chemical weapons use against its own citizens in 2012 and 2013, Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 2013 and declared its inventory shortly thereafter– about 20 metric tons of mustard gas, some unfilled munitions, over 1000 metric tons of precursor materials (for VX and Sarin) and 290 metric tons of raw material, in addition to production sites (more than 20 sites in all). In November, the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) approved a destruction plan, set deadlines and set up a fund for countries to contribute to the effort. In light of the costs and security situation, Syria and the OPCW agreed destruction would take place outside of Syria. A game of "hot potato" ensued.  With no volunteers to welcome the deadly materials, the United States finally offered to destroy the priority 1 chemicals at sea.

Q2: How is the progress on destruction?

A2: So far, Syria's production capabilities and all unfilled munitions have been destroyed on land. Syria missed the December 31 2013 deadline for removing the most significant chemicals from Syria, but removal began a week later on January 7, 2014. Trucks are scheduled to bring chemicals to the port of Latakia, where they will be loaded onto Danish and Norwegian ships. They will meet up with the Cape Ray at an Italian port (not specified but it could be Trieste) where they will be off-loaded onto the U.S. ship. Using two field-deployable hydrolysis systems (FDHS) at a cost of $5M each, it should take between 45 and 60 days of operation to process the chemicals that the United States anticipates taking on.  Additional processing of the resulting effluents will be required.

Q3: What is the status of international cooperation?

A3:  Countries have donated everything from trucks and ambulances to surveillance cameras, GPS locators, container drums, decontamination equipment, naval escort ships and sea-based systems to destroy mustard gas. A few provided additional inspectors, training, and protective gear. The United Kingdom, United States and Germany have volunteered personnel and facilities to destroy materials, while more than 35 entities have responded to a request for proposals to commercially destroy the chemicals.

Commercial destruction will be funded by the OPCW's Syria Trust Fund, which now stands at 9.8 million Euros.  The Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, Malta, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, South Korea, Turkey, the US and the UK have all contributed. The EU has pledged another 12 million Euros, to which will be added Japan's $15M joint contribution to the OPCW and UN. The OPCW estimates dismantling Syria’s chemical arsenal could range from $45M to $60M, without accounting for transportation costs. Other estimates have ranged as high as $100M and $150M. This is considerably lower than the $1B Assad initially estimated for destruction.  (By comparison, destruction of the U.S. chemical arsenal has already cost about $25 billion at 90% completion, for 30,000 tons of material.) 

Sharon Squassoni is director and senior fellow with the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Robert Kim is research assistant and program coordinator with the CSIS Proliferation Prevention Program.

Critical Questions
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Sharon Squassoni

Bobby Kim