By Stefanos Evripidou
THE HEAD of the mission responsible for removing chemical weapons from Syria, Sigrid Kaag, yesterday hailed the “instrumental” collaboration with the Cypriot authorities to get the job done.
Kaag works as special coordinator of the Cyprus-based joint mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and UN for the destruction of chemical materials in Syria.
In an interview with the Cyprus News Agency, the Dutch diplomat said the cooperation, support, facilitation and diplomatic guidance received from the outset by Cyprus was “instrumental”.
“We could never have prepared and sustained this operation without a base in Cyprus, the ability of the maritime partners to work from Cyprus and all the planning happening in Cyprus.”
“I think the Republic of Cyprus can take tremendous credit for that. The strategic location and its international engagement has once again been proven to be very, very important,” she added.
Asked about the role of Cyprus in the region, especially after such a high-profile operation to remove chemical weapons from a country in the midst of the ravages of war, Kaag said: “Cyprus, as a stable, safe, secure country with so many ties to partners in the region, continues to play a very important role in the region.”
Regarding the problems faced by the joint mission during the operation to extract chemical weapons from Syria, Kaag said the first challenge was the tremendous pressure and deadlines set.
“They were unprecedented and were very ambitious.”
Also, such an operation had never been conducted before. “We were designing and planning as we went through to meet deadlines. We were dealing a lot with the unknown both in terms of political risks, security risks, but also the way this operation had to be conducted.”
At the same time, Kaag noted that maritime cooperation among a number of contributing countries required coordination, support and diplomatic engagement, as well specific technology required to destroy chemical materials at sea.
For months, Danish, Norwegian, British, Chinese and Russian ships – navy and commercial – were sailing the seas in and around Cyprus waiting for the right moment to collect chemicals from war-torn Syria.
“It would be a luxury to say that we had one or two problems. It was an ongoing exercise in dealing with challenges,” she said, adding that failure was not an option.
“It was up to us to push, to ask, to report, to suggest and to find solutions,” she said, adding, “and until now sadly, we are the only relatively good news coming out of Syria and I personally hope this will soon change.”
Kaag highlighted that important benchmarks have been met in very ambitious time frames and under huge pressures. The main bulk of Syria`s declared chemical weapons programme is now destroyed, verified and inspected, and all this, without injury to the staff of the joint mission.
However, the Dutch coordinator noted that the job is not yet done.
“We are also waiting for a decision from the OPCW Executive Council on the way in which a number of hangars and tunnels, which are part of (chemical weapons) production facilities, are being destroyed.”
Gradually in the coming months, the mission’s presence in the region is expected to decrease, she added.
In October 2013, the Security Council formally approved a first-ever joint OPCW-UN mission to oversee the destruction of Syria’s stockpiles and production facilities.
On October 18, 2013, Cyprus’ council of ministers approved the establishment of a support base for an OPCW-UN joint mission as well as the provision of facilities for the mission’s safety and operations on the island.
On June 25, Cyprus welcomed the removal of the declared chemical weapons materials from Syria.