With 60 percent of Syria’s chemical warheads destroyed, next stage of disarmament is set

11/15/2013 6:54 PM

12/02/2013 6:31 PM

Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal will be emptied of most “critical chemicals” by the new year, and inspection teams already have overseen the destruction of 60 percent of the country’s unfilled warheads, according to the latest report from the international body responsible for dealing with the task.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced Friday that it has completed a “detailed plan of destruction to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.” Under that plan, the Syrian arsenal will be destroyed “no later than June 30, 2014.”

The new plan notes that all warheads and bombs would be destroyed by the end of January.

The statement was the latest sign that the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal is proceeding far more smoothly than many had anticipated just two months ago, when the United States and Russia first agreed to the disarmament as a way to head off a U.S. threat of military force. The process of destroying chemical weapons in countries with arsenals the size of Syria’s – about 1,540 tons, according to the OPCW – has taken years.

But OPCW inspectors announced earlier this month that Syria’s ability to manufacture toxic agents and fill warheads with chemical weapons already had been destroyed, essentially ending its chemical weapons capability.

Friday’s statement outlined the next steps the OPCW would take, including the removal from Syria by Feb. 5 of the remaining chemical components. Those components will “be transported for destruction outside (Syrian) territory,” the statement said.

OPCW Director General Ahmet Umzucu said the timetable announced Friday is “a clear roadmap. . . . It sets ambitious milestones to be met by the government of Syria.”

The speed with which the destruction process has proceeded is unprecedented and came after chemical attacks Aug. 21 that killed hundreds of people in rebel-controlled areas in the Damascus suburbs. An OPCW investigation into the attacks determined that sarin gas had been deployed but did not say which side in Syria’s civil war was responsible. Details in the report, however, provided evidence that the weapons had originated in government-controlled territory.

In the statement, Umzucu noted that the “next phase will be the most challenging,” requiring the transport of chemicals used in weapons across Syrian territory where a civil war is raging. “Continuing international support and assistance for this endeavor will remain crucial,” he said.

The head of the destruction effort, Sigrid Kaag, whose title is coordinator of the joint OPCW-United Nations mission, said he was “currently reaching out to others to consider joining this international effort.”

The statement also said the OPCW was hoping to establish a trust fund to help keep to the schedule.

The statement did not address where the remaining chemical components would be destroyed. But it said that “all declared chemical substances and precursors, except for isopropanol,” would be removed from Syria by Feb. 5. The “most critical” of those would be out of Syria by Dec. 31.

The statement did not say what those “most critical” chemicals are, but the mention that isopropanol, which most Americans know better as rubbing alcohol, a key ingredient in sarin, would not be removed suggests that it would be burned or allowed to evaporate, as many experts have said was likely.

The plan said that “declared chemical weapons facilities will undergo sequenced destruction” beginning in December and ending in mid-March.

The OPCW said the destruction of “priority chemical weapons” would be complete by the end of March and “all other declared chemical materials” would have been destroyed by June 30.

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