U.S. officials said this week that the Pentagon is rigging a 647-foot cargo ship with high-tech equipment in order to destroy hundreds of tons of Syrian chemical weapons at sea.
The operation faces numerous logistical challenges, namely crossing through rebel-held territory to coastal Latakia, the government-held province chosen by the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is overseeing the mission, as the departure point for the weapons.
We asked Hamish de Bretton Gordon, chemical weapons expert and founder of London-based Securebio, to discuss the details of the mission, and what, exactly, is being transported.
Syria Deeply: Why was the Latakia port chosen?
Hamish de Bretton Gordon: First of all, Latakia was the main pharmaceutical port in Syria before the conflict started. Syria was the largest producer of chemicals and pharmaceuticals in the Middle East, so it’s a port well-equipped for handling chemicals. It’s a deep-water port, although the ship that will come to pick up the chemicals is not a huge ship. All the Syrian seaports, being in Alawite-held areas, should be relatively safe, and security is the main concern here. It’s on the Mediterranean coast, so once the chemicals have left Latakia, they’ve officially left Syria and can be dealt with.
SD: What exactly is being moved?
HBG: The weapons are concentrated north of Damascus at the moment. They’re basically two sets: the first set is 30,000 tons of mustard gas, which has to be removed by Dec. 31, and then the second batch is 700 tons of normal industrial chemicals like hydrochloric acid, which have to be removed by Feb. 14.
SD: What are the challenges of moving the weapons from Damascus to Latakia?
HBG: The route to Latakia will go north of Damascus via Homs, and then into the Alawite-controlled area. There are two significant areas of disputed territory on that route where there’s heavy fighting and where the road is closed at the moment. A convoy of 150 trucks with the shipping containers is obviously very large; it’s difficult to hide and move it off the main roads. So moving it through rebel-held areas is the biggest challenge.
Syria’s deputy foreign minister asked the international community to provide military capability to help them move everything to Latakia. They’re asking in effect for tanks and armed personnel carriers. The international community said they won’t provide it. Even if the [Assad-allied] Russians did, it would still take them three or four weeks to get the vehicles into Syria, which is beyond the deadline. The request for military vehicles is either a delaying tactic, because the regime knows it can’t deliver this in time, or they’re preparing for failure, saying, ‘OK, we failed, you didn’t help us.’
This is a hugely complex military operation that has been planned now for two or three months. The first thing you do with something like this is figure out whether you have enough troops to task, so to decide at the 11th hour that you don’t is very strange.
The other issue is that the convoy has to travel about 300 km. There are military planning yardsticks that say if you are moving through enemy territory, to move more than 2 km a day is very challenging, but if you’re not, you can do 50 km a day. So if there was no enemy on the route, the journey would take six days. But as there are, it could take a week to get through each one of those, so it could take three weeks to get this convoy to Latakia. Once in Latakia, it’s going to take two or three days to load onto a ship.
The nightmare scenarios are roadside bombs like what we see in Iraq or Afghanistan, which blow tanks three or four meters in the air. They could have a devastating effect on this convoy.
SD: Why would the opposition want to blow up the convoy? Aren’t they happy to see the chemicals go?
HBG: There are two reasons. A a lot of the opposition is angry about the fact that the international community seems to be helping the regime here. They see chemical weapons as being synonymous with the international community supporting the regime.
There are also members of the opposition like extremists ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra who have declared they want to get hold of these chemical weapons [for use in warfare]. There’s unsubstantiated reporting that some of them already do, and everyone sees what a powerful weapon they are. The convoy is potentially a very easy target for the opposition to attack, and it might prove too much a temptation for the opposition to avoid.
SD: Once they get to Latakia, what happens?
HBG: The next stage would be that a ship, likely a Danish ship, goes to Latakia and takes these chemicals and meets up with the U.S.’s MV Cape Ray, which is currently having hydrolysis units attached to it and will start trials at the end of this month but won’t be in the Mediterranean until late January. So we’ve got a four-week period where this Danish ship full of chemicals is going to bus around the ocean. There is talk that the U.N. is seeking a port where these two ships can dock and transfer over their chemicals, but I would find that challenging. The Cape Ray is a very big ship and not many ports in the Mediterranean could host it.