By Stefanos Evripidou
Cyprus can feel proud of its contribution to the international mission to ensure the safe transport of chemical warfare agents out of Syria, said Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides yesterday.
Speaking after a tour of the Danish naval frigate, HDMS Esbern Snare, sailing around 4km from the Larnaca coast, Kasoulides said Cyprus’ assistance to the international mission to rid Syria of its chemical weapons was a necessity, as without it, the warships in question would be forever out at sea, waiting for Syria to hand over its weapons in time.
Considering that all countries involved in the mission – providing warships, people and materials – were paying their own expenses, while others made financial contributions, the least Cyprus could do is provide facilities to the Danish-led task force charged with guaranteeing the safe transport of Syria’s chemical weapons from Latakia port.
“Without this, the mission could not take place so easily, one of the reasons being there is no fixed time for the ships to enter Latakia port, due to security reasons. Therefore, they must be ready at any moment to leave for Latakia, in the event the security situation changes,” said Kasoulides.
The on the spot assistance provided by the ports authority, customs, police, and foreign ministry in Cyprus “allows us to also feel proud that we are contributing to such an important goal which directly affects us, given the neighbourhood”, said the minister.
Danish Ambassador to Cyprus Casper Klynge on Monday welcomed Kasoulides aboard the 137-metre Danish frigate, noting that “without the support of Cyprus and the Cypriot government, frankly speaking this operation would not have been possible”.
“Cyprus has been extremely forthcoming in providing all the necessary support for the operation and continues to do so,” said Klynge, expressing hope that the mission will be finalised soon.
Kasoulides highlighted the huge delays in completing the mission to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, noting that two deadlines have been missed so far. The minister appeared in no doubt as to where the blame lay for the delays, pointing the finger at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“We are very far behind. Only five per cent of material has left Syria. And this is a little disappointing because Mr Assad’s regime delays using various pretexts. It is trying to win some additional advantages regarding its own military capacity,” said Kasoulides.
Asked whether Syria will meet the June deadline, he said: “We hope. This is an expensive operation. The countries that have volunteered to participate cannot be paying the expenses of having the ships here for an eternity. Besides this is an agreement between the Syrian Assad regime and the international community, the UN Security Council.”
Syria agreed to abandon its chemical weapons under a deal proposed by Russia and hashed out with the United States, after hundreds of people died in an August 21, 2013, sarin gas attack that Western nations blamed on Assad’s government. Syrian authorities deny they used chemical weapons, blaming rebels.
Asked whether Russia, Assad’s main backer in the Security Council, would work towards ensuring the deadline is met, Kasoulides said: “Well, I hope that Russia, which was instrumental to the first agreement, will also be instrumental in making sure that the June deadline is met.”
The Danish naval frigate first arrived in Cyprus in December as part of preparations to lead a Danish/Norwegian/British task group, responsible for the security of two cargo ships (one Danish, one Norwegian). The ships are tasked with collecting all of Assad’s 1,300 tonnes of chemical weapons from Syria, including sarin and mustard gas, and taking them to a port in Italy. From there, some of the material will be loaded on to the US Navy’s MV Cape Ray, which will use a process known as hydrolysis to neutralise the ‘category one’ chemical weapons at sea, off the coast of Italy.
A separate task force has been set up by Russia and China, who have also contributed frigates to the mission, marking a first for the two permanent members of the UN Security Council in terms of naval collaboration.
The Chinese missile frigate, the Yancheng, briefly docked in Cyprus last month, also marking a new beginning in terms of Chinese willingness to participate in international missions of such high priority.
The Cypriot minister was at pains to stress yesterday that all environmental concerns were being met in the removal of the chemical weapons.
“The whole operation has been very carefully designed,” he said, noting that Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and other experts were on board the frigates participating in the task group to ensure that the chemical materials are handled safely.
“They are approaching the issue from a worst case scenario standpoint, and taking no chances.”
Kasoulides was given a taste of the kind of chemical decontamination procedures followed on board the 6,500 tonne warship during his tour.
“Secondly, the whole operation has been designed in cooperation with the UN Environment Programme, the World Health Organisation and other specialists from many countries.”
He clarified that no chemical weapons as such are loaded on to the cargo ships. And no chemicals will be spilled into the sea, but instead be sold off and used for industrial purposes.
“A chemical weapon becomes a weapon once two or more substances join together. If they are separated, they cease to be chemical weapons. What they are transferring are not chemical weapons but substances that they have already dismantled.
Once the chemical materials go to the Italian port (in the Calabria region), some substances will be bought by Italian companies to use for industrial purposes. The rest will go on the American ship to be neutralised through hydrolysis.
Post-hydrolysis, many companies, including from Britain, Germany and Switzerland, are interested in buying these substances, said Kasoulides.
“All the products of this hydrolysis will be sold so they are also used for industrial purposes. The decision about who is going to take them will determine the next destination of the American ship. This will be known on February 15.”
Kasoulides was also given a tour of the ship’s capabilities, viewing up close some of its anti-surface missiles, anti-air missiles, heavy machine guns, Lynx helicopter, Stinger missiles, anti-submarine torpedoes, decoys launching systems, electronic counter measures and heavy ground mines.
Asked whether he would like to see Cyprus own a similar vessel, he said his personal opinion was that people don’t want to spend money on a navy vessel when there are queues of people at the local community markets seeking food handouts.
“But the same people now protesting, I wonder what they would be saying the moment (Turkish seismic research vessel) Barbaros comes and enters south of Cyprus and creates problems for the operations of ENI or TOTAL,” he said, referring to the Korean and French energy companies that won offshore concessions in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone.
“In my view, something is needed. Not for making a battle. They don’t make battles nowadays, but just being there and manoeuvring is enough.”