The fate of the MV Asia Union was a surprise to no-one. This ‘toxic ship’ was forced to limp around the world looking for someone prepared to break it apart and deal with the toxic asbestos and other substances inside it. The ship was bounced from port to port until it was finally turned away from Bangladesh, a country with some of the laxest laws in the world for dealing with these vessels. Often these ships have political or economic deals done on the quiet, which are then upset when locals, or international pressure groups, get wind of it, and the following protest sees them move onto their next potential anchorage.
Perhaps this should be seen as a lesson learned for the OPCW, and instead of bouncing Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal around Europe they should have gone straight to those most likely to care least. Albania, Germany, Norway, Denmark and Belgium (to name a few) have all rejected offers to host the demil effort, and now countries such as Germany are suggesting that maybe it is best if they are destroyed in place by mobile facilities (such as the US possesses). Shipping the agent out of country always seemed (to me at least), the most preferable but least likely solution. The need was to get them out of harms way, through either transport or destruction, and to some the most obvious solution was to ship them out of Syria to a country willing and able to neutralise them. The first concern was the logistics of getting them out of the country, not insurmountable as hazardous chemicals are shipped around the world (by rail, road and sea) on an hourly basis and while these chemicals might be notorious, in their binary state they are not the most dangerous chemicals already in transit (I would recommend a quick browse of the ERG if you doubt this…). Their movement might have been the first problem, but it was not the major one - deciding where they were going to be shipped to was far larger! Those with longer memories might have drawn parallels with Greenham Common protests in England, the protests over Dupont’s chemical works in Delaware, or any of the protracted legal battles of the US demil programme; non-conventional weapons are not a big hit with the voters! Politically there is no ‘upside,’ making the world fractionally safer by making your backyard fractionally more dangerous is not electoral gold!
Now it is back to the drawing board. Moving mobile facilities into place is reminiscent of the same problem with transporting the chemicals: getting the facility there is the least of the problems! Putting Western civilians in theatre, guarded by Western troops (Denmark, for example, has offered some), will add another international player into the febrile conflict that is Syria, it will further fracture AND coalesce the players in the region - all for minimal gain. The reason that I suggest that it is a ‘minimal gain,’ is that the chemical ‘flush’ is now ‘bust,’ that hand is played and cannot be re-used. Somehow the international community will have to come to terms with that the best that can be achieved is having the munitions in-country, perhaps guarded by UN, perhaps by the Russians.
The MV Asia Union was turned away from Bangladesh in 2011, currently Google doesn’t seem to know where it is, most likely it is still out there, bobbing from one port to another until it finally sinks of its own volition. The same future would seem to be the prospect of Syria’s chemicals: divorced from their host nation, cast adrift on the high seas, turned away from port after port, until people stop caring about them and they disappear from view…