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What hazards and security challenges will Syria face in removing chemicals?

December 31, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Although Syria missed a key year-end deadline in the process of eliminating their chemical weapons stockpile, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane says progress has still been made. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Kane about the risks and challenges that lie ahead in transporting dangerous chemicals out of Syria.


HARI SREENIVASAN: A short time ago, I spoke to Angela Kane, the United Nations high representative for disarmament affairs, about the missed deadline and progress so far in securing chemical weapons inside the war-torn country.

It’s been about three-and-a-half months since Syria agreed to do away with its chemical weapons. What has been accomplished so far?

ANGELA KANE, United Nations High Representative for Disarmament Affairs: Well, it’s been — a tremendous amount has been accomplished so far.

They actually have declared all of the sites that they have. They declared not only what they profess in terms of chemical agents. They have declared the production facilities, the munition filling facilities, and they have already destroyed a great part of those facilities, meaning that they have actually complied with the deadline in advance of the deadline that was set by the Chemical Weapons Convention and by the executive council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the OPCW.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. So, the deadline today wasn’t met. What has to happen for it to be met? What is the expectation of when it will be?

ANGELA KANE: What has to happen is that the materials will be transported outside of Syria, at least what we call the priority one chemicals, and those are the most important, most dangerous chemicals.

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Now, the timelines were extremely ambitious as they were set up. And you have to remember, nothing has ever happened before in a country that is actually torn by conflict, and so the Syrian government has said to us quite some time ago, to the international community, we do not have everything in place to transport these materials. We need armored trucks, we need loading capacity, we need packing material and so forth.

So what the international community has done, with the assistance of several very generous donor countries, is they have given these materials, but not right now everything is in place. But we do feel a start can be made very soon, within days, I hope.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what are all of those tools — you started to name some of them — required to move tons of dangerous chemicals across a war zone?

ANGELA KANE: Well, that is basically a problem.

I don’t — they have, for example, asked for armored trucks. And you know it’s already difficult to get armored vehicles, not to speak of armored trucks. This is not something that is a large supply in the world. And so they have to be procured.

And there was a tremendous effort to obtain the procurement of the materials that have been asked for. Also, big drums needed — were needed, packing materials, specialized packing materials. A lot of that has already been procured and a lot of that is already in place. And I think what we feel now is that a start can be made to start transporting these materials to the port of Latakia.

But on the other hand, what also has not helped is that there’s been very adverse weather conditions in the region. As you have heard, there’s been snow in the region, and so the weather condition has not particularly helped, as also the unstable situation and the fighting in some of the areas has also given rise to security considerations.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, speaking of some of the security considerations, what happens if one of these convoys gets attacked? We know that the convoys have to move, and so do the fighters on the ground.

ANGELA KANE: What I think we should remember is that an appeal has been made to all sides to let the materials leave the country unhindered.

And I do hope that those who may have had plans to attack any convoys have abandoned them. But I think the extra precaution, again, is that these will be in armored trucks, so they will be well-protected. They will be well-protected inside the trucks, but they will also be well-protected with the packing materials and in the drums.

There’s very special precautions that are being taken in order not to endanger any possible accidents or any attacks.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK, so let’s say best-case scenario, they make it all to Latakia. They make it onto the ships. What happens on the U.S. vessel and how do these get destroyed at sea?

ANGELA KANE: Well, the first thing that has to happen is, they have to be off-loaded from the port of Latakia.

And they will be on-loaded on to ships. And then they will have to be trans-loaded on to this American vessel, the Cape Ray, which has been outfitted with what we call a hydrolysis facility. And the hydrolysis facility basically takes care of a certain amount of chemicals per day. It is something that can happen very safely on board of a ship.

It will be accompanied and verified also by officials from the OPCW, by people who verify that actually the destruction takes place. And then, at one point, also what needs to happen is that there will be materials like industrial waste as a byproduct, and that needs to be off-loaded and the needs to be taken care of by an industrial commercial facility in order to be disposed of.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what about the environmental risks? Regardless of where it is in international waters, why is it happening out there, and is there a risk to those seas or those oceans that it’s happening on?

ANGELA KANE: Well, I have full trust in whatever is going to happen is done with entire control of the environmental risk.

And also I should tell you that we have consulted the United Nations Environmental Protection Agency to basically see what can be done in order to minimize any risk that can happen, but I’m very confident that no risk actually will evolve.

But I think we should keep in mind that this has never been happening before. Normally, when a country accedes with the Chemical Weapons Convention, the country says, we will destroy the material on our territory, and then they basically have to build facilities to do that. But Syria right away, when they joined, said, we will not be in a position to do that. You have to help us, you, international community, and particularly the United States and Russian Federation, which helped broker this agreement.


In the U.N.’s last report, it said that there were at least three different cases where Syrian soldiers were attacked with chemical weapons, so there’s some question as to whether rebel groups have access to it. Has the U.N. or the OPCW been able to find or has there been a cooperative conversation with everyone, all the parties on the ground?

ANGELA KANE: I think there have been lots of conversations.

Sometimes, they call the U.N. the talk shop. And in a way, we are. But it basically is always to keep the channels open and to talk to all sides. We have ascertained that there were — there was one large-scale attack with chemical weapons in Ghouta in August, and there were several other incidents of chemical weapons used.

But we have not said who actually has used those chemical weapons, who is responsible for those chemical weapons. That was outside of the mandate of the investigation missions. It was their mandate to only determine whether or not chemical agents or chemical weapons were used. And they did so.

And it’s a very comprehensive report. And I think that they have been very much lauded and very much praised for a report that was so impartial in many ways. And I’m very happy that the United Nations did the service for the international community and also for the people who were affected.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, finally, I have got to ask, what is the situation on the ground? What kind of chemical weapons or chemicals are still left in Syria?

ANGELA KANE: Well, basically, all chemical — not the chemical weapons. They have been — the weapons have been destroyed.

The filling facilities have been destroyed. And also they have destroyed factories where some of these materials were being held and possibly used for mixing materials. So, what is being left now is the chemical themselves. So, the chemical themselves are the ones that need to be taken out of the country.

And there are two categories. And the first category is priority one, as we call it. That’s the most toxic chemicals. And that deadline was the 31st of December. That was established by the OPCW in their meetings, together with the Syrian government. And then the next deadline would be the 15th of February, when the next batch of chemicals would be taken out.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Angela Kane, the U.N. high representative for disarmament affairs, thanks so much for joining us.

ANGELA KANE: Thank you, Hari.