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World

The OPCW's difficult, dangerous mission

The OPCW won't have much time to celebrate winning the Nobel Peace Prize. In Syria, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is facing the most complex mission in its history - and the timetable is tight.

OPCW workers have taken on an extremely dangerous operation in Syria. Only a few kilometers from their hotel in Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad's army is locked in daily fire-fights with the armed opposition. In the middle of this civil war, during the course of which more than 100,000 people have already been killed, they have to disarm and destroy Syria's chemical weapons. The Nobel Peace Prize, by comparison, was the easy part.

Ever since Assad bowed to international pressure on September 14 and applied for membership in the Chemical Weapons Convention, the OPCW has been preparing this mission together with the United Nations. The organization's director, Ahmet Üzümcü, told a press conference in the Hague that cooperation with the Syrian government has been smooth so far. "The Syrian authorities are cooperative," he said.

Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Director General Ahmet Uzumcu speaks during a news conference in The Hague, October 9, 2013. The head of the Hague-based global chemical weapons watchdog said on Wednesday that Syrian officials had been quite cooperative in the early stages of the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. Uzumcu said that international experts aimed to visit 20 sites in the coming days and weeks, and described their mission to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons by mid-2014 as realistic if they had international support. REUTERS/Toussaint Kluiters/United Photos (NETHERLANDS - Tags: POLITICS)

Üzümcü says the Assad regime is cooperating

Blow torches and angle grinders

The first team of 19 OPCW workers arrived in Damascus at the start of October. In total, there will eventually be around 100 of them. "The first inspections took place on October 6 and 7," said Üzümcü. "Some devices have already been destroyed."

Blow torches and angle grinders have been used to destroy missile warheads, bombs, and mixing and filling units. The work itself is being carried out by the Syrian army, under the supervision of the OPCW. The timetable is tight. According to the UN Security Council, all the mixers and filling units have to be destroyed by November 1.

Rendered harmless

These first steps are relatively quick and easy to carry out, says former OPCW employee Ralf Trapp. "They are purely mechanical processes to be implemented," he told DW. "You can drill holes, you can cut pipes, you can pour concrete into the mixers."

But this process is not the decisive step, as nerve agents, like Sarin, are mainly used as so-called "binary agents," which means that the actual poison is only formed when the warhead or bomb explodes, combining two chemicals. The basic ingredients that fill the explosive are relatively safe on their own - so the weapon is only disarmed once the explosive charge and the mixers have both been destroyed.

A large proportion of the estimated 1,000 tons of chemical weapons in Syria are thought to be in this form. Weapons that have already been loaded with chemicals can be rendered harmless in furnaces - a process that is far more difficult and challenging.

Incineration

Dynasafe is one of the few firms that specializes in the destruction of such weapons. The international company - with a German management team - has developed units in which whole missiles can be disarmed at high temperatures inside an air-tight and extremely robust container. "By the end, the scrap that remains is so clean that it can be recycled," boasts Dynasafe manager Holger Weigel. "Even the exhaust fumes are so well-filtered that they stick to all the emissions limits."

Ralf Trapp, chemical weapons expert and co-founder of OPCW.

Ralf Trapp thinks the OPCW is facing a difficult task

It remains unclear whether the firm will also be called in to Syria. Up to now, says chief executive Wolfgang Gödel, they have received no official requests, but he added that the company would be capable of reacting to such a commission at short notice. He pointed out that they have mobile furnaces that can be put into operation quickly - though they have a limited capacity. Building a complete facility, on the other hand, would take months.

Risky transportation

The biggest problem for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, meanwhile, is the security situation. Although all the production and storage sites are thought to be under the control of the Syrian army, the transportation of chemical agents between sites in order to destroy them at one central location seems much too risky.

That's why Trapp thinks the OPCW inspectors are facing an extremely difficult mission. "Of course, you can use legal means to force the Syrian government to cooperate," he said. "But when it comes to the opposition you have to appeal to them to support the process."

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