In August 2013, 1,400 people were killed by sarin gas in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. It was assumed at the time that this was carried out by the Assad regime as they were known to have chemical weapons and the expertise to use them. Such an awful event provoked the American and British Governments to conclude that they should launch missile attacks on the regime’s military assets in order, it was argued, to deter further use of gas. The actual targets were not revealed but any attack on the arsenals of deadly gas would have run the risk of further civilian casualties.
However, the House of Commons voted against this proposal in such a decisive manner that Downing Street backed down and the White House did not in the end put it to the test in Congress. Instead the UN Security Council mandated the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to remove and destroy all Syria’s chemical weapons and the means of their production. Within a year of the initial attack this remarkable disarmament process has been carried out during a civil war without anyone being injured. Moreover it was accomplished at far lower cost than a missile campaign.
Although Russia had previously resisted any firm action against Syria in the Security Council, it must have persuaded its ally that it was in its best interests to sign up to the Chemical Weapons Convention and cooperate in the removal and destruction of its weapons.
To bring about this bold and rapid act of disarmament required a well-coordinated international operation lasting months. First, expert teams from OPCW had to load the chemicals into secure containers; then they were transported under guard to Syria’s principal port, Latakia, where they were loaded onto the Danish ship Ark Futura which in turn had naval protection on its voyage to Italy where the containers were transferred to the specially adapted American vessel MV Cape Ray.
We should be thankful to all the parties involved because the chemicals in the Syrian arsenals were lethal even before being prepared as weapons. Sarin itself is a deadly, colourless and odourless gas. A very small quantity ingested in the lungs can kill in a few hours. These so-called Category 1 chemicals are not easy to handle, nor is it simple to protect from would-be attackers whilst being transported. . The Italian port in Italy at first rejected any transfer in its harbour but was eventually persuaded.
Once on board the MV Cape Ray the chemicals were broken down at high pressure in a specially constructed laboratory. This process of hydrolysis does not dissolve or dilute the chemicals but neutralises them. None of the effluent was discharged into the sea but has been shipped on to Germany and Finland where it will be incinerated. The tunnels and hangars in Syria which housed the chemicals and the stockpile will be destroyed sometime later. Altogether it’s been a huge success for multilateral diplomacy and military cooperation involving 10 nations, including the UK.
Two obvious issues remain. Earlier this year several instances were reported of helicopters bombing targets in Syria with chlorine gas, causing numerous casualties. Chlorine is not as deadly as sarin but it is prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Who was responsible has yet to be resolved. Just as importantly, five governments worldwide are still not parties to the Convention. Israel has signed the treaty but not ratified it while Egypt, Myanmar, North Korea and Angola are not members at all. The UK and other leading members of OPCW should now apply diplomatic pressure to bring on board these nations. In addition, all members of the Convention should remind Russia and the US that their promises to destroy their own very large chemical arsenals have yet to be completed.
Keith Hindell is a member of UNA-UK and former BBC UN correspondent