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How the U.S. Will Destroy Syria's Chemical Weapons Stockpile

Image: Danish merchant vessel transporting the chemicals from Syria

A handout photograph made available by the British Ministry of Defence on June 24 is showing units of the maritime partnership escorting the Danish merchant vessel, MV ARK FUTURA which is transporting the chemicals from Syria. BRITISH MINISTRY OF DEFENCE / EPA file

An American ship the size of two football fields will dock in Italy this week and pick up some extraordinarily delicate cargo — more than 500 tons of chemical weapons, including the ingredients for sarin and mustard gas.

The toxic goods are supposed to be the last and most dangerous chemicals turned over by Syria under a deal struck last summer by the United States and Russia after a grotesque attack that left hundreds of people dead.

No one is sure whether Syria is telling the truth and this is all of it. Still, diplomats and chemical weapons experts have praised the cooperation of world powers in getting rid of what Syria at least admits was in its stash.

“We can’t be sure that we have everything,” said Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association and a former intelligence analyst at the State Department. “The world will be watching closely.”

The handover of the chemicals to the United States, from a Danish ship that took them away from the Syrian shore in January, joins high-stakes geopolitics with the extremely delicate work of neutralizing some of the most dangerous weapons on earth.

Here’s what you need to know.

What’s happening?

The American vessel, the MV Cape Ray, is hooking up with the Danish ship for a transfer on Wednesday and Thursday of 560 tons of deadly chemicals. Then the Cape Ray, specially retrofitted for the demolition work, will steam for the international waters.

On the Mediterranean Sea, American experts and international monitors will supervise the destruction of the chemicals. It’s never been done on the water, but the experts decided it was too dangerous to destroy the weapons in Syria, in the middle of a civil war.

Image: Cape Ray
A marine officers of the Cape Ray, a ship equipped to neutralize Syrian chemicals, gives explanations to a group of reporters around the ship docked at the naval base of Rota used by the U.S, in Spain’s southwestern coast on Thursday, April 10. Alfonso Perez / AP file

How are the weapons destroyed?

Carefully.

Aboard the Cape Ray will be 64 American chemical specialists. They will use a process called hydrolysis: Liquid chemicals are drained from munitions, and then agents are added — sometimes super-hot water, sometimes water and sodium hydroxide — to break down chemical bonds and neutralize them.

What’s left is still toxic but can be further treated, broken down and disposed of as hazardous waste. The process is expected to take three months. Nothing will be released into the environment, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.

The United States, which is destroying its own chemical weapons under a 1997 international ban, formerly used simple draining and incineration, but environmental concerns led it to develop hydrolysis and other techniques.

Does that take care of the full Syrian arsenal?

No. In all, Syria declared 1,300 tons of chemical weapons in its final accounting to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international group charged with overseeing the elimination of chemical war agents.

The remaining 740 tons, most of it less dangerous than what is being handled by the Cape Ray, is being sent to hazardous-waste disposal sites in Britain, Finland, Germany and Port Arthur, Texas.

Syria agreed to hand over its chemicals, under the U.S.-Russian deal, after the United States threatened a military strike.

The West believes it was the forces of Syrian leader Bashar Assad who unleased the chemical attack, the worst in the world in decades, last summer in the Damascus suburbs.

Syria has missed several deadlines in turning over the weapons, partly because of the danger on the ground there. The West also suspects Assad was dragging his feet. Still, the handover is being hailed as a diplomatic milestone.

“A major landmark in this mission has been reached,” Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the OPCW, told reporters.

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Does Syria have anything else?

There’s no way to know for sure, but there are encouraging signs.

The arsenal declared by Syrian leader Bashar Assad matched up closely with estimates turned in by international security analysts and chemical weapons experts. That includes estimates from Russia, an ally of the Assad regime, and the United States.

But outside experts say Syria may still be attack the rebels with chlorine dropped from helicopters in “barrel bombs.” Chlorine is toxic but not classified by the world as a chemical weapon.

And chemical weapons productions facilities still have to be destroyed under the supervision of the OPCW. The organization hopes to start that work soon.

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