The world wants Syria's chemical arsenal destroyed. But so far, no country has offered to do the dirty work on its soil. Over the past week, an alternative has gained ground: Carry out the destruction at sea. The plan taking shape is complicated and untested, but it just might work.
Ever since Syria announced its willingness to give up its chemical stockpiles in September, the international community knew it had a tough task ahead. In other countries, like Iraq and Albania, the chemicals were burned in purpose-built incinerators. But Syria is a war zone, so building a specialized chemical-weapons disposal plant isn't an option.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) tried to find another country that might be willing to take on the worst of Syria's chemical stocks. But after a few months of asking around, it found that nobody wants 500 metric tons of the nastiest chemical weapons ingredients.
"Every country said no," says Paul Walker, director of environmental security and sustainability at Green Cross International, an environmental group that tracks the effects of weapons disposal. "The final alternative is to do it on a ship somewhere on the high seas."
The United States has now offered a ship named the MV Cape Ray. It's basically an oversized car ferry that the U.S. Department of Transportation had available for naval operations. Now it's in Portsmouth, Va., being turned into a floating disposal plant for chemical weapons.
"They're replumbing it," Walker says. "They have enough plumbers there, I think, probably right now to plumb a city."
While the U.S. gets the Cape Ray ready, the United Nations and the OPCW are trying to figure out how to get the chemicals out of Syria and to the ship. First the Syrian Army must transport them through a war zone to the port of Latakia. Speaking on Wednesday, Sigrid Kaag, who is leading the joint effort, said the security situation was so fragile, she had to fly to the port: "I had to travel to Latakia via Lebanon using a helicopter."
But Kaag says the only route for the chemicals will be over land. "This is a viable best-assessed option, and we just need to make sure that it can happen," she says.
When they get to the port, the Cape Ray won't be there to meet them. A U.S. vessel in a Syrian port could become a target. So instead the plan calls for the chemicals to be loaded onto another boat. On Friday, the Danish government announced that, together with Norway, it would offer transport ships and frigates to pick up the chemicals. The plan is for the ships to take them to another port, yet to be identified, where the weapons components will finally be transferred to the Cape Ray.
Only then can the destruction of the chemicals begin.
The U.S. military will have installed two brand-new mobile chemical weapons disposal units, known as Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems. Picture giant vats — the sort you might see at a brewery. They use hot water and other chemicals to break down the toxic weapons components. Or at least that's the theory.
"The system itself has never been tested in full capacity or full throughput mode," says Green Cross International's Walker.
And there's plenty that could go wrong. These units have a lot of plumbing. Pipes could clog with salts produced by the destruction process. The chemicals themselves are highly caustic and could cause valves to corrode. The chemicals from Syria aren't the actual nerve agents — they're so-called precursors. But they're still toxic, and if some leaked, they would be a mess to clean up.
And, don't forget, this is going to be happening on the open ocean. "You don't want to have really high waves or swells that can rock and roll the boat," Walker says. "Because this stuff is wet chemistry. ... You don't want it splashing around."
As it disposes of these chemicals, the ship will fill its hold with waste from the process. The waste won't be as toxic as the original stuff.
"Something like Drano, I suppose, if you wanted to clean your drains," says Walker. "This is not something you'd want to drink, but it won't kill you if you touch it or breathe it in."
It's still nasty enough that it will have to be taken somewhere else for final disposal.
The plan still must be approved by the 41 member states of OPCW's executive council. But observers are hopeful that the complex disposal mission can go forward.
"I think this can work," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. But, Kimball adds, "We're likely to see some hiccups and delays along the way."
The deadline is tight. Once the final go-ahead is given, the goal is to get it done by June 30.