NOBODY thought it would be easy to transport several hundred tonnes of highly toxic chemical agents on a road that runs through territory fought over by two sides in a civil war. Speaking in Oslo on December 9th, a day before collecting the Nobel peace prize awarded to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ahmet Uzumcu, its head, warned that a December 31st deadline for getting the Syrian government’s most lethal substances out of the country would be “quite difficult” to meet.
Yet much has been achieved. A joint team from the UN and The Hague-based OPCW was sent to Syria two months ago as part of a deal to avert an American missile strike in response to President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons on August 21st. Co-operation from the Syrian government, which has a legal responsibility for implementing the plan, has been all that could have been hoped for, says Sigrid Kaag, a Dutch diplomat who leads the mission. Key milestones for the verification of chemical-weapons stockpiles and the functional destruction of the facilities where they have been produced were met on time (October 27th and November 1st, respectively). Of 23 sites, 22 were visited by inspectors. The one that proved inaccessible because of fighting is believed to have been dismantled and abandoned.
First, the weapons must be sealed and packaged in special containers brought across the border from Lebanon by Syrian technicians who have been trained there by OPCW specialists. Then they must be transported by road from multiple sites to Syria’s biggest port, Latakia. Once there, they will be loaded onto ships provided by Norway and Denmark and taken to an American government-owned vessel, the Cape Ray, a 200-metre (650-foot) cargo ship that is part of a reserve fleet used for transporting military hardware.