Syrian Chemical Weapon Disposal

A few months ago it seemed inevitable that Syria would be subjected to some sort of international military attack, given the world’s outrage at the Assad regime using chemical weapons against its own people. After tense negotiations and irrefutable evidence, Assad’s Syrian regime relented and agreed to let the UN come into its war-ravaged country to remove the stockpile of chemical weapons.

Against all logic, the international community getting its hands on the chemical weapons has proven to be the easy part of the equation. What remains mostly unknown and unresolved is how will the weapons be gathered, how can they be safely transported, where will they be destroyed, and by whom.

Terror Around Every Corner

The head of the mission to destroy the weapons recently announced that the United Nations are awaiting approval from an unnamed country to use its port to load the stockpiles of Syria’s most deadly chemicals onto a U.S. ship for offshore destruction.

The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which won the Nobel Peace Prize in October, has been given the task of overseeing destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks under an agreement that saved Syria from U.S. long-distance missile strikes.

The OPCW recently announced that the United States has started modifying a U.S. naval vessel to equip it to destroy Syria’s 500 tons of chemicals, including actual nerve agents—neutralizing them offshore with other chemicals in a process known as hydrolysis.

Italy, Norway, and Denmark are a few notable countries that have offered to transport Syria’s chemicals from the northern Syrian port of Latakia with military escorts. The chemicals would then be transferred to the U.S. ship at a still to be announced port.

Several European countries declined to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal on their own soil, at which point the OPCW announced the U.S. offered to break down the most lethal components in international waters. As currently painted, the plan is to see all the declared chemicals transferred to the coastline by the end of the year so they can be eliminated far away from the bloody fighting in Syria.

How Safe?

It makes you really wonder just how the transporters are going to get these chemical weapons from their present locations, across the debris fields of destruction, and to the port where they can be transported.

Here’s another thing. Syria is crawling with known terrorist groups and radical militants who would love nothing more than to get their hands on these chemical weapons. What would it mean for a convoy of chemical weapons to be captured by people who would relish the chance to use them in the most catastrophic circumstances possible?

We should all stop and think about that one. Obviously, security has to be of primary concern surrounding the gathering and transportation of these weapons.

The naval vessel the U.S. is modifying in Norfolk, VA is the MV Cape Ray, a 648-foot-long transport. The modification will include chemical-arms destruction gear for the workers tasked with the job. The field-deployable Hydrolysis System is approximately 400 feet by 700 feet and includes power generators, hazardous-waste storage, and a laboratory. The system, meant to ship in approximately 35 20-foot containers, needs only consumable materials such as water, reagents, and fuel to run.

The hydrolysis technology has been proven and used by the U.S. in destruction of its own stocks in the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, and in Newport, Ind.  There has been no announcement as to whether military or civilian personnel will carry out the disposal operation. An OPCW official did say that private companies would likely be contracted to dispose of the waste after it has been neutralized.

Hydrolysis can neutralize five to 25 metric tons of chemical warfare agents a day, also creates liquid hazardous waste—roughly five to 14 times the quantity of the treated material.

Destroying the chemical materials, according to the Director-General of the OPCW, is expected to cost between $47- 61 million. The cost of destruction will actually be much higher when factoring in the price of the system, transporting the stockpiles, and disposing of the toxic waste afterward.

 

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The Crisis Called Syria

The last several days have been riveting if you have been following the drama surrounding Syria. Here is a synopsis of some of the latest developments:

  • President Obama took his case public, telling America that he would ask Congress to pass a resolve to take limited military action on Syria. This, of itself, is quite ironic—the democratic president becoming a war hawk while various Republican senators have become pacifist doves.
  • The Obama Administration has been working the international diplomatic channels trying to muster support for an attack—all of this to send the Assad regime a clear message that it cannot use chemical weapons against its own. That Aug. 21 attack killed an estimated 1400 people, many of them women and children. There have been other reported smaller incidents of Assad using chemical weapons against his own citizens.
  • Senator McCain, in a town hall meeting in Arizona, encountered fierce opposition to any sort of military action in Syria. This is one of many surprising events—whether in America or in Europe—in which traditional lines of support appear to be smeared.
  • Newt Gingrich has gone public stating that any attack on Syria is an act of war on a sovereign nation. He is opposed to any military action.
  • If that isn’t enough irony, the normally docile French are more willing than the British or the Germans to launch missile strikes on Syria. Citizens of all European countries are decidedly against military action in Syria. In other words, it appears the world is willing to let what happens in Syria just go on.

Syrian refugees have put tremendous pressure on neighboring countries. In fact, Lebanon is all but overwhelmed with the refugee crises. It remains to be seen how Turkey, Jordan, Iran, and other neighboring countries will deal with the growing humanitarian crisis. Displaced Syrians exert tremendous pressure on the region and the problem is sure to worsen in the months ahead.

Opposition at the G20 Summit

The world is divided on what to do about the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. U.S. President Barack Obama faced growing pressure from Russia’s Vladimir Putin and other world leaders at the G20 summit in Russia. The most vocal adversaries of any military action against Syria are (no surprise here) also Syria’s staunchest allies: China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. The G20 summit is meant to address the world economy and the chief argument against an American or joint-nation attach is that it would hurt the global economy and push up oil prices.

Political analysts are saying the first round at the summit went to Putin, as China, the European Union, the BRICS emerging economies, and even Pope Francis (by letter) all warned against military intervention in Syria without the approval of the U.N. Security Council.

Obama blames forces loyal to Syrian President Assad for the poison gas attack in the Damascus suburbs that killed up to 1,400 people. Moscow says Obama has not proven that claim and says rebel forces may have carried it out.

Senator McCain refuted Putin’s claim, saying that in due time “irrefutable evidence” would be forthcoming and the whole world would see that Assad regime was, without question, responsible for the atrocities committed by a nation against its own citizens.

Some of Syria’s staunchest friends blasted what they call the “arrogance” of U.S.-led efforts to strike the war-torn nation and said those who do will pay a steep price.

It raises the question of whether Syria would have the capability to threaten any US or other participating nation assets in the region. Syria has at least 20 P-800 Oniks/Yakhont anti-ship missiles, which could pose a threat to any US ships. But the missile has a range of only 62 to 186 miles (100 to 300 kilometers), depending upon its flight profile.

Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had some of the harshest criticism for the United States and President Obama on Thursday. His assertion was that the US has no right to make “humanitarian claims (given) their track record” in Iraq, Afghanistan and at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Syrian problem is one that has polarized world opinion. Meanwhile, the tragedy continues to mount and worsen day by agonizing day. If the world does nothing, what will it mean to the way Assad continues with his side of the war? If the world does anything, what will it be and how will that decision play out in a world arena?

Expect more heartache and more controversy while the crisis that is Syria deepens by the hour. Nations and citizens of nations want to keep neutrality. I can’t imagine how they world can watch and wait and not expect the Middle East to deteriorate around this Syrian situation.

In this nation we continue to debate what to do about Syria. With all that is happening in the world, it does not yet appear certain what we will decide to do. I think of tiny Israel in all of this. Israel is directly affected by the Syrian civil war and its implications. Israel has already responded with military action when it felt to act.

Israel is shaped by a world-view that requires it know at all times what it must do and how it must act. I think how the rest of the world must covet this simple ability to act.

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US Poised for Missile Attack on Syria

There has been a lot of talk about President Obama’s “red line” comment concerning the Syrian government using chemical weapons against its civilians. CBS is now reporting it likely that that President Obama will bomb Syria sometime in the coming weeks, conditional on a coalition mandate. US military sources are publicly confirming there is little doubt a poison gas attack occurred in the Damascus suburbs. That attack, just days ago, left hundreds dead.

What started as a Syrian uprising in 2011 evolved into a full-fledged civil war. And, as the world has watched now for over two years, a lightly armed rebel force has been going against the full military might of the Assad regime. To date there have been over 100,000 civilian deaths and the frightening wholesale destruction of cities. A recent UN report says that over two million Syrians have fled that country, with at least half of them being children.

The international community has struggled to arrive at a unified response to the conflict in Syria. But these new additional reports of chemical weapons could, if confirmed, cement the international resolve to act. Last year President Barack Obama said that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that, if crossed, the US would not ignore.

If the president were to order an attack, it would likely be a cruise missile attack from US warships, keeping US troops and airmen out of harm’s way. Such an attack would be a calculated warning designed to convince Assad that he cannot get away with using chemical weapons. In other words, the world is watching and will not allow it to happen.

Here we are now, the last week of August 2013. President Obama met in the White House yesterday with his top civilian and military to discuss options. American warships are in the Mediterranean and additional ships are on the way. The New York Times reported that Obama’s national-security aides are studying the 1999 air war in Kosovo as a possible blueprint for US action in Syria.

In the Kosovo conflict, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, an autonomous province of Serbia, were being massacred by Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. President Bill Clinton, after much reluctance, decided to intervene, but couldn’t get authorization from the U.N. Security Council, where Russia—Serbia’s main ally—was certain to veto any resolution on the use of force. So Clinton turned to NATO to deal with a crisis in the middle of Europe.

The Syrian parallel is obvious. In this case too, an American president, after much reluctance, seems to be considering the use of force but can’t get authorization from the U.N. because Russia and China are certain to veto. There is growing pressure to act, bolstered by evidence gathered by independent physicians’ groups and U.S. intelligence that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons.

Can Obama count on a multinational alliance? That is uncertain. NATO may be the answer—just as it was in Kosovo. Turkey might be a leading voice for intervention. Turkey is dealing with refugee pressure and its leaders are justifiably concerned by the growing death toll and instability in Syria just across their southern border.

If CBS is right and he Pentagon is making the initial preparations for a cruise missile attack on Syrian government forces, buckle your seat belts, because things could go from where they are to a full regional (if not world) conflict in the blink of an eye.

President Obama clearly does not want to take military action without international support. Responding to CNN questioning, the president said “If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country, without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it. Do we have the coalition to make it work?”

I think we are at a point where we are about to find out what the US is going to do about Syria.

 

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