UK to aid in destroying Syria chemical weapons stockpile

Meanwhile, US is blocking Iran's participation at the Syria peace conference planned for next month

U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi arrives for a press conference following meetings on Syria, on Friday at the United Nations offices in Geneva.
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

The U.K. will help the international mission to destroy chemicals from Syria's cache that have allegedly been used to build chemical weapons, officials said Friday, joining a complex operation with prominent roles for the U.S., Denmark and Norway.

Britain's Foreign Office said it has agreed to destroy 150 tons of two industrial-grade chemicals from Syria's stockpile at a commercial facility. The chemicals will be shipped to the U.K. before being transferred to a commercial site to be incinerated and destroyed, it said in a statement.

"It is important to stress that these are chemicals, not chemical weapons," the Foreign Office said, explaining that the two chemicals only become highly toxic when mixed together to make a nerve agent.

The commitment adds another layer to the complex and unprecedented operation to destroy Syria's chemical stockpile, which comes after the confirmed use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Aug. 21, which the U.S. government says killed 1,400 people. 

A number of questions remain about how Syria's arsenal will be destroyed, including what will be done with the material once it is rendered harmless.

To mitigate risks, the Foreign Office said the two chemicals would be removed from Syria separately, sealed in standard industrial containers to international standards and under the supervision of chemical weapons watchdogs.

Under the plan by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), chemicals will be transported from 12 storage sites to Latakia in Syria. Russia is providing armored trucks and other equipment to help transport them.

The chemicals will then be loaded onto Danish and Norwegian ships and shipped to an Italian port, where the most toxic chemicals — including materials used to make mustard gas and sarin — will be transferred to a U.S. ship for destruction at sea.

That ship, MV Cape Ray, is serving as the linchpin of the plan. The Cape Ray will have machinery that will neutralize the chemicals by mixing them with other chemicals and heated water. The machinery was developed by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, an arm of the Pentagon, and has never been used in the field.

The 700-foot Cape Ray, which is owned by the Transportation Department's Maritime Administration, will be turned over to the U.S. Navy's Sealift Command once it leaves Virginia. It will need about 10 days to get to the Italian port, which officials have not yet identified.

Under the current plan, the most toxic chemicals are to be removed from the country by Dec. 31. All other chemicals declared by Syria are to be removed from the country by Feb. 5, with the exception of around 100 tons of isopropanol, which are to be destroyed in Syria by March 1. All chemicals are to be destroyed by June 30.

However, Ahmet Uzumcu, director-general of the OPCW, has warned there may be delays.

Iran at peace talks?

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Meanwhile, the U.S. is blocking Iran's participation at the Syria peace conference planned for next month in Geneva, but there has been agreement on the participation of other delegations, which will include regional players such as Saudi Arabia. 

The U.N.-Arab League's Syria envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, said about 30 nations would be invited to a day of speechmaking planned for Jan. 22 in the Swiss city of Montreux, and Iran's participation was the only sticking point but was still a possibility. The Syrian opposition also has opposed Iran's involvement.

"Our partners in the United States are still not convinced that Iran's participation would be the right thing to do," Brahimi told a news conference. "We have agreed that we will be talking a little bit more to see if we can come to an agreement on this question."

A senior U.S. official told reporters on condition of anonymity that the U.S. objected to Iran's participation because it hasn't publicly endorsed the principles from the first Geneva peace conference on Syria in June 2012 and is providing financing and military personnel to militias including the Iranian-allied Lebanese Hezbollah group that has backed Assad's troops. The official wasn't authorized to speak on the record about the matter.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard has said it has high-level advisers in Syria, but denied having fighters there.

Brahimi's comments came after a day of meetings with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. — and Syrian neighbors Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

Along with those nations, other invitees include Algeria, Brazil, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The actual negotiations between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government and opposition representatives begin on Jan. 24 at the U.N.'s European headquarters in Geneva.

Disputes over who should represent the Syrian opposition and government and which regional powers should be at the table, have blocked previous attempts to bring Syria's warring sides for peace talks. 

Wire services 

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