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Joining forces to destroy Syria's stockpile

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has pledged to destroy Syria's chemical weapons at sea. The US, Denmark, Norway, Russia and China will work together to achieve this goal.

Just off the coast of Cyprus, two cargo ships and two warships have been spotted carrying out military maneuvers and practicing formation routines. It's quite obvious that warships "Esbern Snare" and "Helge Ingstad" as well as freighter "Taiko" and "Ark Futura" are on a mission and are making sure they are prepared for it.

The four Danish and Norwegian ships have taken on a difficult task: They are scheduled to pick up Syria's chemical weapons in the next couple of weeks to transport them to a yet-to-be-named port in Italy where the most toxic chemicals will be transferred to US ship "Cape Ray" for destruction at sea.

Destroying weapons amidst war

The Syrian army is currently collecting some 1,300 tons of chemical agents from 12 storage sites all over the country and transporting them through Syria's embattled streets to the Syrian port of Latakia.

"There isn't anything you can compare this particular mission to. Nothing like this has ever been undertaken before - to disarm a country in the middle of an armed conflict," Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) spokesman Michael Luhan told DW. "Particularly to disarm it of weapons of mass destruction that have to be removed from the conflict zone. All of this is new."

The Cape Ray (Photo: picture alliance /AP images)

The chemical agents will be destroyed at sea

Several countries have agreed to lend a hand to make sure this mission is going to succeed. Russia has also agreed to send warships. It has already provided 50 trucks and 15 armored vehicles to help transport the chemicals. Syrian soldiers will load them with the weapons of mass destruction and take them to Latakia.

In addition to the Cape Ray, the US is providing several thousand containers with built-in tracking devices in order to monitor the chemicals' route at all times. China has offered surveillance cameras and 10 ambulances to help support the OPCW's mission and has said it would send a warship as well.

Finland's chemical weapons emergency-response team is prepared to step in if a vessel were to lose freight or in the unlikely event of a disaster. Britain has agreed to destroy 150 tons of industrial-grade chemicals from the Syrian stockpile at a commercial facility.

A dozen countries have paid into two funds set up to cover the costs of the disarmament program; the EU contributed 12 million euros ($16 million). According to Germany's Foreign Office, Germany chipped in an extra 3 million euros.

"It's really been a remarkable multilateral effort," OPCW's Luhan said.

Tight schedule

OPCW's inspectors are in charge of sealing containers filled with Syria's deadly chemicals. They are going to check the containers again once they have arrived at Latakia.

By December 31, 500 tons of the most dangerous weapons should have been shipped off to Italy. By February 5, the OPCW plans to have shipped some 800 tons of precursor chemicals. The materials are expected to be destroyed on board of Cape Ray by the end of March.

Inspectors (Photo: PHILIPP GUELLAND/AFP/Getty Images)

It will take about 45 to 60 days to destroy the chemicals, says Pascal Zanders

It's a tight but manageable schedule, according to Belgian chemicals expert Jean Pascal Zanders. "OPCW's director general has indicated that there might be a slight delay - we are probably talking about days rather than weeks or months," Zanders told DW. Delays might be caused by embattled streets or because it takes longer to destroy the chemicals.

"The American neutralization process on the ship will take about 45 to 60 days," he said, which makes for a bit of leeway to meet the deadline, he added.

"The destruction process has to take place in pretty calm waters," Zanders explained. If waves are higher than 15 centimeters (6 inches), the operation has to be put on hold.

Transporting chemicals

Klaus Mommsen, a former naval officer and editor of German maritime magazine Marineforum, says the most dangerous operation isn't destroying the chemical agents, but transporting them.

"The most critical part is loading and unloading [the chemicals] and securing them in Syria," he told DW. He believes Western warships won't be steered into Syrian territorial waters. "This is going to be Russia's duty."

It would be the first joint military operation by the US, Denmark, Norway, Russia and China in the Mediterranean Sea. If everything goes according to plan, this mission will have made the world a little bit safer by destroying dangerous chemical weapons by March 2014.

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