The Cable

'It's Never Going to Happen': Why Syria's Chemical Deadline May Not Be Met

The Obama administration and its allies are struggling to find a safe place to store Syria's chemical weapons after they've been shipped out of the country, raising new questions about when the U.S. military will actually begin destroying the deadly munitions.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has set an ambitious Dec. 31 deadline for Syria to hand over the deadliest of its chemical armaments, which are supposed to be packed into roughly 150 shipping containers, driven to the Syrian port city of Latakia, loaded onto Norwegian and Danish cargo ships and then transported to a location outside of Syria. Once there, they will be transferred to an American vessel called the Cape Ray for destruction. Senior American defense officials stressed Thursday that the Cape Ray itself won't dock at Latakia and that no U.S. personnel would set foot in Syria.

That, at least, is how the plan is supposed to work in theory. In practice, the effort faces an array of technical, diplomatic, security, and financial challenges. The disposal equipment being installed onto the Cape Ray has never been tested at sea, and it's not clear that it will be capable of operating continuously for months without breaking down. The U.S. and its allies will also need to find a way of ensuring that none of the weapons are stolen or damaged on their way to the Cape Ray or during the actual destruction work. To say it will be a challenge is the grossest of understatements.

"I know we have a deadline in three weeks but the operations have not yet started," said one diplomat familiar with the U.N.'s internal discussions. "It's never going to happen."

The Obama administration's more immediate task is to find an allied government willing to allow the ship from Latakia to land at one its ports and unload the weapons before they're transferred to the Cape Ray. It would take roughly two days to load the weapons onto the American vessel, which means they'd need to be stored at the port temporarily, posing a potential security risk to the host country. Not surprisingly, it's been hard to convince a government to let a weapons-laden cargo ship unload at one of its ports. That makes it highly unlikely that the U.S. and its allies will be able to meet the Dec. 31 deadline, set by the OPCW, to remove Syria's chemical arsenal.

Washington recently informed one ally that it was considering using a port servicing a U.S. naval base in Naples, Italy. Talks are also underway with Morocco and Spain to see whether the materials could be unloaded there. Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch head of a joint mission of experts from the United Nations and the OPCW overseeing the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons, said she wouldn't speculate about whether the armaments would be transferred to American custody in a Mediterranean port. Pentagon officials said negotiations with foreign governments were ongoing but declined to comment on which countries could ultimately take the weapons before they were transferred to the Cape Ray.

There's also considerable uncertainty about how the materials will get to Latakia in the first place. The U.S. and other Western powers responded coolly to a Syrian request for armored vehicles and other protective equipment Damascus claimed it needed to carry out a successful operation. In a November 15 letter to the Security Council, Kaag said that Syria would have to reach out to friendly countries for assistance in securing the route. Russia, one of Syria's closest diplomatic allies, is looking into the possibility of supplying up to 200 trucks to transport the materials. A spokesman for the OPCW, Christian Chartier, said Kaag was trying to act as a "go between" to encourage other states to help Syria with its security needs.

Renewed combat along the route to the port city poses another challenge. During a recent visit to Syria, Kaag told the U.N. Security Council in a closed-door briefing, she was not able to reach Latakia by the main road from Homs -- a key hub on the chemical weapons route -- because of fighting, forcing her to travel by helicopter from Beirut.

"It's a main artery, as you know. If we cannot travel there, it's a real issue," said Kaag, who is required to travel in the region with a Romanian close protection detail. Kaag insisted that the mission was "all very manageable," but conceded she could not certain it would go smoothly. 

"I'm not aware that this operation has ever been carried out in this way," she said.

Sending the chemical weapons out of Syria marks the most dangerous, and the most expensive phase of a landmark Sept. 14 pact between U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov calling for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons program by the middle of 2014. (Merely destroying the waste products could cost an estimated 35 to 40 million Euros; the full cost of transporting the armaments out of Syria and destroying them is likely to be exponentially higher).

The accord -- which averted a U.S. strike against Syria in retaliation for using sarin to kill hundreds of its own civilians in late August -- has proceeded smoothly. On October, 31, Syria effectively destroyed its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing and filling plants, the OPCW confirmed.

The U.N. has said the chemical weapons should be packed for transport by Dec. 13 and then moved out of Syria altogether by Dec. 31. A senior U.S. defense official called that timeline "ambitious," but expressed confidence that it could be met. The destruction efforts would begin aboard the Cape Ray in early January.

Senior defense officials said it would take 45-90 days to turn the weapons into non-harmful waste using two of the so-called "Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems" that are being installed in the Cape Ray's cargo holds. The equipment will operate inside of a sealed tent to prevent any of the chemical agents from being accidentally dispersed while they're being turned into waste. The resulting sludge, in turn, will be brought to a commercial destruction facility elsewhere in the world and then incinerated.

Beyond the difficulty in finding a port where the weapons can be unloaded, U.N.-based diplomats say the United States has also been unable to help secure sufficient funding to hire companies to dispose of the toxic waste products.

"The U.S. or Paris can say that we need to make the deadline but will they ensure they can make it possible?" another official asked, adding that governments "have to be realistic and feasible about the deadlines they impose."

As of Nov. 30, 35 companies had submitted expressions of interest in securing a contract to collect the waste product from the United States and transfer it to a facility for incineration. But OPCW officials noted that there isn't enough money in a trust fund established for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons to put out formal requests for bids from the firms.

"What I know is that what we have by now is just not enough; it's far away from being enough," said Chartier, the organization's spokesman. "We need to be certain of our financial commitments in order to start the tender process."

AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

U.S. Shoots Down Russia’s Push to Scrap Missile Shield

For years, the U.S. government has insisted that a planned missile defense system in Europe served to protect America's allies against attacks from Iran. Now that the nuclear threat from Iran may be receding, Russia, which has always seen the system as a menace to its own security, has suggested scrapping the program. But the White House on Thursday said the missile shield, otherwise known as the European phased adaptive approach (EPAA), isn't going anywhere.

"Our plans regarding missile defense in Europe and our commitment to EPAA as the U.S. contribution to NATO missile defense remain unchanged," National Security Council spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson told The Cable.

The idea of scaling back NATO's missile defense system was floated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday following a meeting with Russian and NATO counterparts. "If the Iranian nuclear program is placed under the complete and tight control of the IAEA, the reasons that are now given for the creation of the European segment of the missile defense system will become invalid," said Lavrov.

Of course, placing Iran's nuclear program under tight U.N. control would require a comprehensive deal between Iran and six world powers, the so-called P5+1. Negotiators still have half a year to hammer out the details of a final agreement, which could implode at any moment -- a point the White House acknowledged. "There is still much work to be done as we negotiate the contours of a comprehensive solution over the next six months," said Lucas Magnuson.

Regardless, the decision to stay firm on the missile shield has sparked rare agreement between the White House and Republican hawks in Congress. "We absolutely must continue to put in place an effective and affordable missile defense system in Europe," Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) told The Cable.

That's not to say all Republicans are relieved. Moscow's prominent seat at the P5+1 has some U.S. lawmakers worried that Russia could engineer side-deals involving the NATO missile shield.

"I fear that missile defense and our alliances are just a negotiating chit to the administration when it comes to maintaining the fiction of a cooperative relationship with Putin," Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), told The Cable.

The White House did not forecast whether it might change its mind about the defense shield in the future, but for some Republicans, the idea of scrapping the plans under any scenario is a non-starter. "Even if a deal were to work out in the next six months, Iran will retain the ability to  enrich nuclear materials to assemble a nuclear weapon in the future, and would be able to field it in far less time than it would take for the U.S. and NATO to deploy a missile defense system in Europe," said Inhofe. "Furthermore, an effective missile defense system is an important hedge against other nations that might choose to follow in the dangerous footsteps of Iran and North Korea and has an important nonproliferation effect."

As it stands, the Obama administration has plans to build up NATO's defense shield in Europe with the deployment of shorter-and medium-range interceptors in three stages. (The administration plans to install medium-range interceptors in Redzikowo, Poland by 2018.) Back in March, the administration announced that it was abandoning the final phase of the defense shield, which would've included long-range missiles. As the Brookings Institution's Steven Pifer noted this week, the rollout of that announcement did not go so well with U.S. partners in Europe, leaving some "wondering whether Washington was making decisions regarding their security without taking account of their views."

"If developments with and in Iran create the possibility to reconsider the [defense shield] - still a big if - Washington would want to engage allies early in a consultative process," said Pifer.

While Pifer argues that European allies could be reassured with the right amount of consultation, it's hard to picture Republicans being similarly assuaged. "Any Russian attempts to leverage a deal with Iran to undermine the NATO Alliance and the establishment of a missile defense system would be reprehensible and we should not succumb to blackmail," said Inhofe.