The test to see whether months of preparation for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons will pay off is fast approaching. The Department of Defense announced that the M/V Cape Ray deployed from Portsmouth, Va., on Jan. 27 for day one of a planned 90 day mission. The mission, which has many moving parts, is being carried out as part of an international effort to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons. Even though U.S. and international preparation seems complete, Syrian delays have put the timeline for destruction at risk.
The work of hundreds of government and contract workers will be put to the test in the next several months when the Cape Ray reaches the Mediterranean Sea.
The work of hundreds of government and contract workers will be put to the test in the next several months when the Cape Ray reaches the Mediterranean Sea. The ship will take an estimated 10 days to reach the the Mediterranean. The regime of Syrian President President Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the safe transportation of chemical weapons in order to facilitate their destruction. As part of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – United Nations Joint Mission for the Elimination of the Chemical Weapons Programme of the Syrian Arab Republic (OPCW-UN Joint Mission in Syria), Danish and Norwegian ships will transfer the chemical weapons, including mustard gas and “DF compound,” a component of sarin gas, to the Cape Ray for destruction. This transhipment will take place in the port of Gioia Tauro, Italy. Transhipment in a port has obvious benefits over transfer on the open seas.
The removal of chemical weapons from Syrian shores has already begun, if haltingly. On Jan. 27, the OPCW-UN Joint Mission in Syria announced that a second shipment of chemical weapons departed Latakia, Syria, aboard Danish and Norwegian cargo ships. The ships were escorted by navy vessels from the People’s Republic of China, Denmark, Norway and the Russian Federation. Questions have begun to arise however over Syrian delays in moving their stockpiles to the port of Latakia. A Reuters article on Jan. 30 reported that the Syrians are likely to miss next week’s deadline for the removal of all chemical weapons from their shores. To date, only 4 percent of chemical weapons have left Syria, well behind the timeline. “What we’re highlighting today, and what the OPCW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] has highlighted, what Ambassador Power [U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power] has highlighted, is the fact that they [the Syrians] have to date not lived up to that. But there’s still the opportunity to do that. They have all of the tools and resources they need to do that,” said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jan Psaki in a press briefing on Jan. 30. Despite the delays, the mission, if successful, will see the destruction of 700 metric tons of Syrian chemical weapon agents. Security for the Cape Ray‘s delicate operation is being provided by U.S. Navy assets.
The removal of chemical weapons from Syrian shores has already begun. On Jan. 27, the OPCW-UN Joint Mission in Syria announced that a shipment of chemical weapons departed Latakia, Syria, aboard Danish and Norwegian cargo ships.
Syrian chemical weapons will be destroyed via two Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems (FDHS). The FDHS have a 99.9 percent destruction efficiency. The resulting effluent, along with 500 metric tons of Syrian commodity chemicals, will be disposed of in commercial facilities that will be determined by the OPCW. The OPCW has received bids from 14 private companies for the contract to dispose of the effluent. Bids were received from companies in France, U.K., China, Russia, Switzerland, Finland, U.S., Saudi Arabia, Spain, Germany, and Belgium. The contracts were from, Airbus Defence and Space, Augean PLC, China National Chemical Corporation, Vector-N LLC, Dottikon AG, EkoKem OY AB, InnoSepra LLC, Pan Gulf Industrial Systems, Paragon Waste Solutions, Séché-Environment Group, SITA Iberica, TM Deer Park Services, Veolia Environmental Services, and a temporary consortium of Verein, Veolia, Remondis, and Indaver.
The Cape Ray is crewed by 35 mariners contracted by the Keystone Shipping Company. The original complement of 29 was expanded to 35 in order to provide hotel services aboard the ship. “The whole key here is teamwork,” said Rich Jordan, captain of the Cape Ray. “There has been an unbelievable amount of teamwork in this whole process, from the Maritime Administration, Military Sealift Command, to the Keystone Shipping Company,” added Jordan.
“We’ve had three or four days of hard training together where we’ve been making mariners out of them, and they’ve been making chemical destruction folks out of us. And we’re going to continue to train. The whole trip will be a combination of production, training, and being ready for the worst-case scenario.”
Also onboard the ship are 64 civilian specialists from the U.S. Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, Md. Before shipping out, the Army specialists trained for life aboard ship. “We’ve had three or four days of hard training together where we’ve been making mariners out of them, and they’ve been making chemical destruction folks out of us. And we’re going to continue to train. The whole trip will be a combination of production, training, and being ready for the worst-case scenario,” said Jordan. Several sea trials before the final departure were conducted to ensure that that the ship and systems were operational at various sea states. Jordan sounded happy about the training and readiness of everyone involved. “We’ve got some really good folks on here that know how to train, and we’ve been training them,” said Jordan. They have got all kinds of shipboard damage control, damage control training, and that sort of thing,” added Jordan.
The Cape Ray didn’t depart without some encouraging words from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to Jordan and the crew of the Cape Ray, that recognized the historic nature of the mission. “You are about to accomplish something no one has tried. You will be destroying, at sea, one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons and helping make a safer world,” said Hagel in a statement. “As you all know, your task will not be easy. Your days will be long and rigorous. But your hard work, preparation and dedication will make the difference,” added Hagel.
“You are about to accomplish something no one has tried. You will be destroying, at sea, one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons and helping make a safer world.”
Despite Syrian delays, The Cape Ray’s sailing means that the timeline set by the international community for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, once they have been removed from Syria, remain on track. The OPCW has targeted June 30 as the date for the total destruction of Syrian chemical weapons. Since 45 “down days” have been built in to the Cape Ray’s mission, for possible weather, so theoretically the mission could be competed before June 30. The U.S., the U.N, and the OPCW used the departure of the Cape Ray to emphasize that they expect Assad to meet his international obligations and commitment to the destruction Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.