A Chinese missile frigate was on standby in Cyprus Sunday to serve as an escort in the complex and risky operation involved in delivering Syria’s chemical weapons to the specially-outfitted U.S. ship Cape Ray for destruction.
Over the weekend, Cypriot Defense Minister Photis Photiou, accompanied by Chinese Ambassador Liu Xinsheng, inspected the 440-foot frigate Yan Cheng at dockside in the port of Limassol. It was the first time a Chinese warship had come to the eastern Mediterranean island.
Ambassador Liu said that "China supports the efforts of international community for the Syrian chemical weapons and we come to Cyprus to participate in this international operation,” the Famagusta (Cyprus) Gazette reported.
“We wish this operation success," Liu said, but he gave no estimate for when the Yan Cheng would begin its escort duty.
Last week, the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad missed the Dec. 31 deadline set by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations for moving hundreds of tons of toxic agents – mostly precursors for mustard gas but also elements of the nerve agent Sarin – to the northern Syrian port of Latakia on Russian trucks.
The Syrian regime cited bad weather and the ongoing civil war for the delay. OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu said a number of factors made it necessary to extend the deadline, “not the least the continuing volatility in overall security conditions.”
Last Friday, a convoy consisting of a Norwegian navy ship and merchant ship, and a Danish navy ship and merchant ship, weighed anchor from Cyprus and began proceeding to Latakia under escort from Russian warships to be prepared to take on board the chemical weapons agents.
On Saturday, the Italian Foreign Ministry confirmed that an Italian port would be made available for the transfer of the chemical weapons to the Cape Ray.
Without naming the port, the Foreign Ministry said Italy has provided a "port for the trans-shipment of Syrian chemicals" prior to their "destruction in international waters," according to Rai Italia, the Italian national broadcasting company.
The chemicals will be brought over "in sealed containers, following strict technical and environmental standards" and will be destroyed through hydrolysis aboard the Cape Ray, the Foreign Ministry said.
The 648-foot MV Cape Ray was still dockside at General Dynamics Corp.'s NASSCO-Earl shipyard in Portsmouth, Va., awaiting orders to begin the mission. "Exactly where and how that process will take place hasn't been finalized yet," said Frank Kendall, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.
Kendall said that it would take the Cape Ray about three months to destroy the weapons, once the process has begun.
The Cape Ray has been fitted with three field deployable hydrolysis systems, each costing about $5 million, designed to destroy the chemical agents in a process involving water and bleach.
Where the Cape Ray will anchor to carry out the process has yet to be determined. The OPCW also has yet to reach agreement with a nation willing take the hazardous waste that will be produced by the process.
The confirmed use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta last Aug. 21, which the U.S. charged had killed 1,400 people, led to a U.S.-Russian agreement sanctioned by the UN to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons by mid-2014.