The first batch of the most dangerous materials in Syria’s banned chemical weapons stockpile was exported from the country Tuesday, loaded onto a Danish commercial vessel in the Syrian port of Latakia in an operation overseen jointly by the United Nations and the group responsible for ensuring the arsenal’s destruction.
In a statement, the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, The Hague-based group that monitors the treaty Syria agreed to join in September, said the Danish vessel had departed Latakia and would remain at sea until the second cargo of chemicals reaches Latakia, when it will return to load them.
The vessel was escorted by Danish and Norwegian naval vessels, the statement said, and China and Russia were providing further maritime security for the operation.
“This movement initiates the process of transfer of chemical materials from the Syrian Arab Republic to locations outside its territory for destruction,” said the statement by Sigrid Kaag, the U.N. official responsible for coordinating the effort.
The export and destruction of the most dangerous substances in the Syrian arsenal, which the statement called “priority chemical materials,” has long been considered the trickiest and most hazardous part of the operation, which Syria agreed to carry out as part of its pledge more than three months ago to renounce chemical weapons and join the treaty that bans them.
Syria’s pledge came after intense Russian and U.S. diplomacy that averted U.S. military action in response to an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs that killed hundreds of civilians, including children. The United States accused President Bashar Assad’s forces of having carried out the assault, the deadliest single event in the civil war convulsing the country. Assad said insurgents were responsible.
Under a U.N. Security Council resolution approved Sept. 27, Assad’s government agreed to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal by the middle of 2014. The most dangerous chemicals were supposed to have been exported from the country by Dec. 31, but that stage of the operation was delayed because mayhem caused by the war had made their overland transport to Latakia too dangerous to complete by then.
Despite the delay, the neutralization of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, which includes the deadly nerve agent sarin and other toxic compounds, is so far considered a conspicuous success in a conflict that has seemed only to worsen and grow more intractable.
A U.S. naval vessel outfitted to safely neutralize the chemicals at sea has been on standby to receive the chemicals once they are safely out of Syria. Kaag’s statement did not specify when that part of the operation would commence.w
Chemical weapons begin to leave Syria