The Cable

New Syrian Weapons Disposal Plan: Send Them to Scandinavia

Having secured Syria’s pledge to give up its stores of more than 1000 metric tons of chemical weapons, nerve agents, and precursors, the United Nations is struggling to find a place to dispose of them. Much of the legwork is being carried out by the United States, which has been sounding out governments from Europe, ...

Getty Images Europe
Getty Images Europe

Having secured Syria’s pledge to give up its stores of more than 1000 metric tons of chemical weapons, nerve agents, and precursors, the United Nations is struggling to find a place to dispose of them.

Much of the legwork is being carried out by the United States, which has been sounding out governments from Europe, the Middle East, and Russia about the prospects of taking on the task. So far, there are no apparent takers.

U.S. officials have even approached Norway about disposing of the agents — even though the country has neither the technology nor the expertise to do so.

The search for a chemical weapons dump is under way as the U.N. has already started to oversee the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program. Earlier this week, a U.N.-backed team of weapons inspectors began the work of supervising the destruction of equipment and mixing machines linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program. "Syrian personnel used cutting torches and angle grinders to destroy or disable a range of materials, including missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling equipment," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote the Security Council this week.

But the destruction of the vast majority of Syria’s most lethal agents and weapons has yet to begin.

While Syria bears responsibility for destroying its chemical weapons under international supervision, it lacks the technical capacity and the financial wherewithal to eliminate its vast stores of chemical agents and precursors, particularly given the tight timeline set by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The materials are supposed to be eliminated by the first half of 2014.

Washington, meanwhile, lacks trust in the Syrian government to fulfill its obligation to destroy all of its chemical arsenal — which includes sarin, mustard gas, and VX nerve agent — and would like to have it shipped out of the country as soon as possible. It is also concerned about the dangers that come with carrying out such a risky mission in the middle of a war zone.

In recent weeks, American officials approached Norway, a country nearly 2,900 miles away from Syria and with little experience in destroying chemical agents, to see if it would be prepared to perform the delicate task. Washington has also asked other countries with experience destroying chemical weapons to consider helping out. That includes Albania, which recently destroyed its Soviet-era chemical weapons with U.S. assistance; Belgium, which has a facility in the town of Poelkapelle for destroying World War I chemical weapons; and France, which first developed a chemical weapons program during World War I in response to German gas attacks.

The Norwegian government, which is expected to install a new prime minister next week, has said it will get back to the U.N. "We don’t know why we have been approached; we don’t have the capacity, and we don’t have the expertise," said one Norwegian official, who declined to speak for the record.

"Norway is considering in what way we can contribute … and we are considering several options," Ragnhild Imerslund, a spokesperson for the Norwegian foreign minister, Espen Barth Eide, told The Cable, adding that her government was in discussion with the U.N. and several member states. "But we have been asked, and we are going through the process of determining what this would entail for Norway in terms of security and environmental implications."

The plan would call for the Norwegian government to host a series of American mobile units that are capable of converting chemical warfare agents into a far less toxic waste material. According to sources familiar with the plan, international inspectors would likely destroy the most dangerous chemical weapons on-site in Syria. But the majority of chemical precursors, as well as nerve agents, would be transferred out of the country.

There are three basic ways to destroy chemical weapons. You can place a chemical weapons warhead in a detonation chamber and blow it up; you can incinerate the nerve agent or chemical precursors; or you can "neutralize" the toxins chemical warfare agent or precursors through the process of hydrolysis — essentially bombarding the liquid agent with massive amounts of water and some caustic reagent like sodium hydroxide. The United States has developed advanced mobile systems that use hydrolysis to destroy chemical weapons agents anywhere.

Norwegian officials say they are studying the request but that they need to weigh a number of concerns, including the safety of transporting such lethal toxins and the environmental costs. The process for destroying the chemicals — called hydrolysis — involves bombarding the toxic agents with massive amounts of water and other chemicals. But it can leave five to 10 times worth of toxic waste.

American officials also met this week with Belgian defense and foreign ministry officials, but have yet to make a formal request for help. “It was an exploratory and technical meeting to see what Belgium could offer in terms of neutralization, in Belgium, of the chemical components of the Syrian arsenal,” said Hendrik Van de Velde, a spokesman for the Belgian Foreign Ministry.

Some experts on chemical weapons said they were concerned about the risks of transferring toxic agents over such a long distance.

"I’m a little surprised to hear that: The best option is to destroy the chemicals and the precursors on-site in Syria. That would seem better than approaching a country like Norway," said Paul Walker, an expert on chemical weapons at the environmental organization Green Cross International. "Once you get involved in shipping this stuff long distance by sea, train, or air, you are heightening the prospects of having chemical accidents."

Walker said it would make more sense to consolidate all of Syria’s chemical agents in one or two sites in Syria, perhaps in the northwest region of the country, establish a secure perimeter, import some advanced mobile destruction units, and destroy it all on-site. "It sounds difficult, but doable," he added. But Syria has to comply with its obligation to hand over all of its chemical weapons agents. And key countries with expertise on chemical weapons disposal — including Belgium, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the Netherlands — provide expertise and funding. "This will cost hundreds of millions of dollars," Walker said.

But some observers say that it may be too dangerous and too risky to try to destroy the chemical weapons arsenal in the midst of a civil war, where battles lines are being redrawn by the day.

"The logistical challenge of moving a thousand tons of nerve agent through a country in the middle of a civil war is daunting, as is the challenge of running a mobile facility in a conflict zone is also daunting," said Ralf Trapp, a former official at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. "I couldn’t tell you which is less risky; either way, it’s a huge challenge."

The United States has already been in discussions with Russia about the possibility of destroying the nerve agent there, according to a report from the Center for Public Integrity. The United States, the center’s Jeffrey Smith reported, contributed $1 billion to a Russian facility for destroying chemical weapons in the town of Shchuchye, 1,000 miles southeast of Moscow.

A spokesman at the Russian mission to the United Nations declined to comment on the discussions. And it remains unclear whether Moscow, which has pledged to send Russian personnel to Syria to support the chemical weapons inspectors, will play any direct role in the destruction of Syria’s nerve agents. But one senior diplomat familiar with the matter said Moscow had been cool to the idea. "I think the thinking was they had so much in their own chemical weapons stockpile that they have no excess capacity," to take on the Syrian stockpile, said one diplomat.

Administration officials have also held international discussions about the possibility of shipping the chemical agents for destruction to neighboring countries, including Jordan and Turkey, according to a senior diplomat familiar with those talks. But the plan was dropped because of concerns that the two countries, which are already struggling to cope with security challenges and a massive influx of refugees, were not in a position to take on such a demanding new burden. "The plan was considered and withdrawn" before the two countries were formally approached.

Follow me on Twitter: @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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