The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)

Destroying Syria's Chemical Weapons

This article was published more than two years ago. Some information may no longer be accurate.

How UNOPS made destroying Syria’s high-grade chemical weapons, in record time, a reality.

  • This story was originally published in Hidden Champions. The first comprehensive account ever to be written about UNOPS reveals unique stories from the organization.

It all started with a phone call in June 2014. The Italian ambassador to Denmark, H. E. Stefano Queirolo Palmas, called UNOPS Deputy Executive Director Vitaly Vanshelboim, saying he wanted to discuss something highly confidential. “I was surprised that he was calling because we didn’t normally contact each other,” said Vitaly. “I thought maybe he wanted to suggest a candidate for a job.” Instead, the ambassador asked if UNOPS would take on a challenge with the highest of stakes. “He had been told that the case at hand was so complicated that UNOPS was the only agency who could potentially deal with it,” said Vitaly.

In the months before the phone call, there had been mounting pressure on the Syrian government to declare its chemical weapons, and allow the international community to destroy them. Syria eventually agreed, on condition that it was done before Ramadan. So UN negotiators struck an agreement. A Danish ship would take the weapons from Syria to a port on the south coast of Italy, from there they would be destroyed at sea by a specialized American military vessel. But there was a problem: Ramadan was 29 June – just days away. And the risks were immense, especially the potential for a chemical spill. “We were told [a spill] would likely cause tens of billions of dollars’ worth of damage, it would potentially close the port for months if not years and it could even topple the government,” Vitaly explained. The odds were stacked against the operation. 

During the call, Vitaly could immediately see that there were good legal reasons not to take on the challenge. But he also realized that the costs of inaction would be severe. 

If we did nothing, the one chance to destroy these weapons would be lost.

So Vitaly (who was acting as Executive Director of UNOPS at the time) spoke to the office of the UN Secretary-General, which told him that it could not give formal clearance, but would be grateful if UNOPS could proceed. “The UN’s reputation was at stake and we were ostensibly on our own, albeit with many sympathizers and well-wishers,” said Vitaly.

Read the Q&A with Vitaly Vanshelboim

How does this project show the value of UNOPS?

Before we were contacted, the US, Italian and Danish missions to the UN and the Secretary-General’s office said only UNOPS could handle the case. Whether people like us or not, they see us as a driven organization that will take on impossible tasks. For a long time there was a perception of us as an ‘eleventh hour agency’. Others might first try a project themselves but if it became too complicated or risky they could call in UNOPS. I don’t think that’s the case with UNOPS anymore. But it is true that we are very flexible, agile, fast-moving and able to find new ways of getting things done. For others, getting permission for this kind of project would take many months. In this case we had to make super-quick decisions and take calculated risks.

Tell us about some of the risks of the project?

One of my colleagues asked a critical question: Suppose one container has one small leakage. What would happen? The response from the hazardous materials experts was chilling. They said they’d mapped all the winds and tides. If it went wrong, they were planning for a two kilometre wide gas field of toxic chemicals, within a matter of hours. Had any of those chemicals been dropped and spilled, it could have been disastrous.

What was the outcome of the operation?

You will have heard how many people have tragically been killed and injured by chemical weapons in Syria in recent years. Just imagine for a second if all those chemicals were still in Syria. It is probable that they would have been used against Syrian people. This was totally unbeknownst to us at the time. The potential outcome of not going ahead with this mission, was what drove us to make it work.

Can you share with us a memory of the project that has stuck with you?

Even though we made several exceptions to our usual processes, getting an agreement in place was still going to be very tight. So at 11.30pm on that day of the deadline, I was in a hotel in Geneva signing every single page of the 200 pages of that agreement. I remember my fingers hurting because I had to sign them quickly so they could be faxed to the company in time. We only finished a couple of minutes before midnight. It was not funny at all but quite gratifying in the end that we made it on time.

The number of containers of the highest category of chemical materials made by Syria.

Complications were numerous. The critical challenge was moving the chemicals from the Danish ship to the American vessel. The cargo was 80 containers of the highest category of chemical materials made by Syria. Everyone wanted to get these materials out of the country. But noone wanted to be associated with the risks. What if something went wrong? What if there was a spill? The idea triggered protests at the port. Insurance providers said they could not cover the operation. Then, the Italian government advised that, given the extreme time pressure, UNOPS could only do business with one company, which ran logistics in the port. This, and the need to complete the agreement in a matter of days, meant UNOPS needed to expedite all its procedures if the deadline stood any chance of being met.

UNOPS decided to go ahead with the operation, at the request of and in collaboration with OPCW, the US, Italian and Danish governments, and other parts of the UN. The timelines were incredibly tight. The company from the port imposed a deadline of the end of 26 June to reach an agreement. If the operation was going to happen, it had to be setup between 26 and 29 June.

Over five days, 200-pages of agreements were drafted with UNOPS to support the operation. At the same time, UNOPS secured all the logistics and setup operations for the exercise. Insurance was found, and the final pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place. The legal agreement came down to the wire, as UNOPS sought quick clearance from the parties involved and their lawyers. “We moved fast and lots of exceptions and judgment calls needed to be made,” he said. 

We moved fast and lots of exceptions and judgment calls needed to be made.


UNOPS was considered the best equipped organization to deal with the complex issues.

Stefano Queirolo Palmas - Former Italian Ambassador to Denmark

The company set a final deadline of midnight for the agreement to be in place. Vitaly signed the last page of the agreement with only minutes to spare.

Was the operation worth it? About 600 tons of chemical materials were destroyed on the MV Cape Ray. Soon after the operation, some of the Syrian towns that had held these weapons fell to ISIS. Vitaly is convinced that UNOPS helped save countless lives. “Just imagine for a second that all those chemicals were still in Syria,” he said. “There’s no way you can rule out that some wouldn’t fall into the hands of ISIS.” What would have happened if UNOPS hadn’t taken on the challenge? Vitaly’s answer is simple: “The consequences would have been unthinkable.”

International media including the BBC, The Guardian and the Washington Post followed the story closely. After it was completed, Italy’s Environment Minister said he was proud of his country’s “contribution to international security” and US President Barack Obama hailed it as “an important achievement in our ongoing effort to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction.” But UNOPS role in the operation remained a secret. “It was an unusual operation for us,” said Vitaly. “It did not go on for several months or years like a typical UNOPS project, but it was just a few weeks from start to finish.”

Read the Q&A with Stefano Queirolo Palmas

Why was this project so important?

Syria possessed a large stockpile of chemical weapons. With the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 concerns were raised about both the security of Syria’s chemical weapon sites and about the potential use of chemical weapons. In September 2013, Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, and agreed to the destruction of its chemical weapons, under the supervision of OPCW. In January 2014, Italy agreed to allow usage of the port of Gioia Tauro for transloading Syrian priority chemicals from the Danish ship it was initially transported on to the U.S. Vessel Cape Ray for destruction.

What made it difficult?

At least five different actors were involved in the operation: The OPCW, the Italian, Danish and US governments, and the Italian port terminal operator. Due to the exceptional and multinational characteristics of the transloading operation, difficulties emerged in relation to the procurement of port services, legal implications and assumption of liabilities.

What was the outcome of the project?

On 2 July, 600 tonnes of chemical weapons were loaded onto the Cape Ray at the Italian Gioia Tauro port. By August 2014, all of the declared chemicals had been destroyed. It is important to stress once more that the role of Italy was quite instrumental, in term of assets, resources, diplomatic perseverance and dedication.

Why did you approach UNOPS about this project?

UNOPS was considered the best equipped organization to deal with the complex issues related to the procurement of port services in a multinational and politically sensitive operation.

What was it like working with UNOPS?

It was a positive experience. [I] appreciated [their] professionalism and efficiency – a readiness to deal with rather unprecedented tasks was also a key asset.

What did UNOPS bring to the project and how did they help to make it a success?

High level administrative, legal and technical expertise. In close coordination with the Italian government and the OPCW, the three legal instruments necessary to the implementation of the project were quickly prepared: The procurement contract with the port terminal operator, a contribution agreement between UNOPS and the OPCW related to the operation financing, the exchange of letters between UNOPS and the Italian government on the use of Italian funds and other legal aspects. Naturally, due to the delicate nature of the matter and the extraordinary nature of the operation, preemptive negotiations were complex, either in Copenhagen, Den Hague and New York. But [the] final result is what really matters.

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