The at-sea destruction process of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal in the “Ionian Abyssal Plain” between Crete and Sicily is fast approaching. Following Archipelago’s latest press release on this issue (04.04.2014), we now give you an update based on our communication with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Last week, the OPCW sent Archipelagos an invitation to visit the MV Cape Ray, now at the port of Rota, Spain, while last Friday they sent us their official answers to some of our questions. Soon, a relevant teleconference is expected to take place, during which we hope to have our remaining questions answered.

As for tomorrow’s visit to the MV Cape Ray, Archipelagos and its partners have many doubts about the true aims of this event. Therefore, despite a Spanish colleague of ours being in the area, we decided not to attend, given that we refuse to offer a communicational alibi to the U.S. Navy, since the purpose and content of this so-called “informational tour” will not alter the problem’s nature or the imminent danger. Our goal remains unaltered: We cannot allow the destruction process of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal to occur in this way.

The latest responses to some of our pressing questions that we received by the OPCW last Friday only served to increase our concern. As an indication, the OPCW has stated that it will virtually take no part in the process, but will merely supervise the procedure as an external observer, as will the U.N., while the U.S. Navy will have full control of the operation.

We were also informed that the loading and transport of the chemical arsenal from Syria is continued by the cargo ships MV Ark Futura (from Denmark) and MV Taiko (from Norway). However with respect to the marine area where the destruction process will take place, the OPCW stated that it had not yet been precisely defined. This is in contrast to previous reports that clearly indicated an area between Crete, Sicily and Malta. We believe that the reactions, pressures and key questions raised are altering the initial plans of the U.S. authorities regarding the destruction process.

In addition, they mentioned that while some tonnes of chemical weapons from Syria will become inactivated (of course not for free) in onshore facilities in Finland, Britain and the U.S.A., the rest, which are dangerous and highly toxic chemical weapons (characterized by the International Convention for Chemical Weapons Convention as Schedule 1), namely 20 tonnes of the infamous “mustard gas” and 540 tonnes of the so-called DF (Methylphosphonyle difluoride), will be destroyed at sea in the Mediterranean, since no country accepted to carry out the destruction in onshore facilities, obviously because of risk involved.

It is also noteworthy that beside the U.S.A., several other countries are involved, such as China, Norway, Denmark and Russia with the (in essence decorative) presence of one of their naval vessels, which is to accompany the U.S. vessel, but cannot interfere. But it is at least suspicious that all Mediterranean countries will be absent, which are the ones that will suffer the greatest environmental, financial and social consequences in case of an accident or failure of this dangerous pilot project.

Given that the European Mediterranean countries have perfectly well-equipped government research vessels, including Greece with the vessel R/V Aigaio of the H.C.M.R., we believe that for the sake of transparency and security they should have already been invited to oversee the process, with continuous monitoring of the chemical composition of the seawater.

It should be mentioned that representatives of the OPCW assure us that there will be no discharge into the sea, referring to a number of international conventions and to their relevant obligations. If, however, we take into account the risk, the amount of chemicals, the uncertainty of the pilot project of “inactivation”, and the dangerous way the U.S. armed forces have in the past managed toxic weapons (e.g. depleted uranium, dumping of thousands of tonnes of toxic weapons during military operations), we should not be appeased by mere assurances.

In conclusion we must emphasize that we must be very careful with the changes that may occur in the plans for the at-sea destruction of the Syrian chemical arsenal. Under no circumstances does the change of area or vessel mean the dangers of this irreversible environmental destruction are eliminated for the Mediterranean. Based on these latest responses by the OPCW increasingly more questions are created about the whole operation.

Anastasia Miliou – Scientific Director

“Archipelagos” Institute of Marine Conservation