Syria chemical weapons could be destroyed at sea

Syria's over 1,000 tonnes of chemical weapons could be destroyed at sea if no country agrees to dispose of them on its soil, the world's chemical watchdog said Wednesday.

"This possibility has been looked at for some time already," Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) spokesman Christian Chartier told AFP of destroying the chemicals at sea.

"It’s still being looked at and is one of several solutions envisaged by member states and as long as a decision has not been taken, it remains a possibility," Chartier said.

"This possibility doesn't exclude the fact that member states continue to think about the possibility of destroying them on land," Chartier added.

The world is in agreement about destroying Syria's chemical weapons as part of a US-Russia deal aimed at heading off strikes on the Damascus regime after deadly chemical attacks in August.

But despite consensus on destroying the chemicals outside war-wracked Syria, no country has yet been found ready to have them destroyed on its soil.

Concerns about toxins in the sea

Syria is cooperating with the disarmament operation and has already said it had approximately 1,290 tonnes of chemical weapons and precursors, or ingredients, as well as over 1,000 unfilled chemical munitions, meaning shells, rockets or mortars.

Expert Jean-Pascal Zanders said that chemical weapons were incinerated on ships after the Second World War, but "I'm not sure these incinerator ships still exist."

"One of the concerns with such incinerators is the production of toxic stuff that then gets into the sea, the food chain, including dioxins and so forth," Zanders told AFP.

The OPCW's Executive Council on Friday approved a final roadmap for ridding Syria of its arsenal by mid-2014, with a plan on how to destroy them out of the country, on land or at sea, to be approved by December 17.

A team of UN-OPCW inspectors has been on the ground since October checking Syria's weapons and facilities.

Destruction of declared chemical weapons production facilities was completed last month and all chemicals and precursors placed under seal, the OPCW said last month ahead of a November 1 deadline backed by a UN Security Council resolution.

Options for destruction 'extremely narrow'

Some chemical weapons are destroyed through a process known as hydrolysis, in which agents, like detergents, are used to neutralise blistering chemicals such as mustard gas and sulphur.

Nerve gases such as sarin are often better destroyed through incineration.

Disarmament expert Zanders said that the dumping of chemical-filled munitions at sea was "routine" before the 1980 Oslo Treaty prohibited it.

"That's why Belgium and France are still stuck with chemical munitions from the First World War," he said.

Belgium said on Monday that it was not favourable to destroying Syria's weapons on its soil, and Albania also rejected the proposal on Friday after a string of protests.

Norway too has ruled out destroying the chemical weapons on its soil but along with Denmark has offered ships to help take the chemicals out of Syria.

France said on Tuesday that it was prepared to offer expertise, but denied that it had been approached to destroy the chemicals.

The options for disposing of the chemicals on the territory of a host country are now "extremely narrow," Zanders said.

"France is still not capable of disposing of its First World War munitions," Zanders said, noting that a French installation for destroying munitions from that conflict "will not become operational until 2016".

Likewise, the US and Russia are "probably not" going to destroy the weapons on their soil, he said.

"Russia faces the same problem as the US, namely having domestic laws which prohibit the transport of chemical weapons across state or administrative boundaries," he said.

Albania likely said no to Syria's chemicals because it is still dealing with the headache of its own weapons.

"The waste from the mustard gas is still there, it has not been disposed of," said Zanders, who runs a consultancy and blog dedicated to disarmament.

UNDERSTANDING THE SYRIA CONFLICT