— After months of waiting, a team of chemists and engineers from Aberdeen Proving Ground is now ready to begin the historic destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, the Pentagon said Thursday.
The work is to take place aboard a container ship specially fitted with equipment to neutralize Syrian stocks of the World War I blister agent sulfur mustard and the sarin precursor DF. The team of some 64 civilians from the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground sailed from Italy on Wednesday for an undisclosed location in international waters, where they plan to destroy the materials under heavy international guard.
Syrian President Bashar al Assad agreed to surrender the weapons last year amid international outrage over a chemical attack near Damascus that reportedly killed hundreds of civilians. The attack was among the bloodiest incidents in a 4-year-old conflict between the regime and rebel fighters that has left more than 100,000 dead and displaced more than a quarter of the Syrian population.
"The mission to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons program has been a major undertaking marked by an extraordinary international cooperation," said Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
"Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict," Uzumcu said. "And this has been accomplished within very demanding and tight timeframes."
The Edgewood specialists intend to use equipment they designed and built specifically for the mission. Officials have described the first-ever shipboard destruction of chemical weapons as a potential model.
The container ship MV Cape Ray received the so-called Priority 1 chemicals this week in the Italian port of Gioia Tauro, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said. Their destruction is expected to take from 60 to 120 days.
The mustard and DF to be neutralized by the Edgewood team are the most dangerous of Syria's weapons stocks. Other materials are to be destroyed or rendered harmless at commercial facilities in the United States, Britain and Finland.
Russia and China provided security as the materials were transported from Syria to Italy aboard Danish and Norwegian ships. Representatives from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is based in the Hague, are monitoring the operation.
The Edgewood specialists have decades of experience in destroying chemical weapons — but always at highly secure and often remote facilities, on land, built for the purpose. Now, for the first time, they're planning to do the work aboard ship, on the open sea.
The system they have designed is based on the technology that they used to destroy the U.S. stock of mustard agent at Aberdeen Proving Ground under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997.
The Cape Ray has been fitted with two units of the new Field Deployable Hydrolysis System. Operators do not handle the materials directly; the chemicals and their neutralizing agents are mixed in a closed container, and the resulting effluent is to be discharged into closed containers. The operators wear masks with air hoses.
The Edgewood team was expecting 540 tons of DF and 26 tons of mustard. Both materials are neutralized in the same way: They are mixed with water.
The liquid that is produced is acidic. Team members plan to add chemicals to bring the pH level above neutral, creating a caustic material that some have likened to Drano. In that form, they say, it will be safer to store and transport to its eventual disposal site.
Officials say safety, not speed, will be their priority. They have said the operation will show that there is now a safe, environmentally responsible way to dispose of chemical weapons that can be deployed anywhere in the world.
The Edgewood specialists had been waiting since January while Syria missed several deadlines to deliver the materials. Under the initial timeline set last year by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the destruction was to have been completed by Monday.
Syrian officials blamed the delays on the challenges of transporting the chemicals out of the country amid heavy fighting.
Teams from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations began securing Syrian weapons sites in early October, and the Syrian government handed over the last of its declared stocks last week.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said this week that the chemicals were transferred from the Danish ship Ark Futura to the Cape Ray "without incident."