UN chemical weapons experts in Syria
UN chemical weapons experts in Syria Reuters

The United States will destroy the most dangerous of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile on a ship at sea, AFP quoted the world’s chemical watchdog as having said on Saturday.

“The neutralization operations will be conducted on a U.S. vessel at sea using hydrolysis,” the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OCPW) said in a statement quoted by the news agency.

“Currently a suitable naval vessel is undergoing modifications to support the operations and to accommodate verification activities by the OPCW,” The Hague-based watchdog added.

The ship operation will destroy what is known as “priority chemical weapons,” the most dangerous of Syria’s total arsenal and ones that have to be out of the country by December 31 under an international deal agreed to avert military strikes on Damascus.

OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan on Saturday declined to name the navy vessel to be used.

OPCW member states have been thrashing out the details of how to destroy Damascus’s arsenal ahead of the watchdog’s annual meeting set to start on Monday.

A final plan for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons is due to be approved by December 17.

Sigrid Kaag, the top UN official from the joint UN-OPCW mission, confirmed the use of a U.S. ship to render Syria’s most dangerous chemical weapons unusable through a dilution process known as hydrolysis, and said the resulting byproducts would be destroyed by commercial companies.

The U.S. vessel “will not be in Syrian territorial waters,” she added.

The OPCW earlier this month adopted a final roadmap for ridding Syria of its arsenal of more than 1,000 tons of dangerous chemicals by mid-2014.

The OPCW said on Saturday that 35 commercial companies have expressed an interest in destroying the lower priority, less dangerous weapons.

Chemical weapons experts in the past have expressed concern over the incineration of chemical weapons at sea due to the risk of toxins that may land up in the water, but the OPCW has confirmed that destruction of Syria's chemical weapons at sea is safe and feasible.

Despite international consensus on destroying the chemicals outside war-wracked Syria, no country had volunteered to have them destroyed on its soil.

Norway has said it would offer logistical support for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, but would refuse to carry out the operation on its soil.

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

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

The joint Russian-U.S. Syrian chemical weapons disarmament plan was endorsed by the UN Security Council in September, when it adopted a resolution demanding the destruction of Syria's entire chemical arsenal, estimated at about 1,000 tons, by June 30 next year.

The resolution was a last-minute measure to prevent an American strike on Syria in retaliation for the regime's alleged use of chemical weapons in an attack on a Damascus suburb in August left hundreds dead.

While Syria has won praise for cooperating with the mission, it was recently reported that the United States is looking at new classified intelligence indicating that the Syrian government may not fully declare its chemical weapons stockpile.

This would mean that Syria will still have a secret cache of chemical weapons even after the current agreed-upon destruction effort is carried out.

A former Syrian general has warned that President Bashar Al-Assad prepared for the chemical weapons crackdown in advance by hiding his weapons stockpile with the Lebanese group Hezbollah, a close ally.