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Destroying Syria’s chemical weapons: Can Norway shoulder the task?

The US says Norway is an ideal location to destroy roughly half of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. But Norway would have to surmount legal – and political – hurdles.

As Norway contemplates a request by the United States to help destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, it is confronting a number of complicated legal and technical risks.

The country’s new government has been asked to destroy 300 to 500 tons of chemicals components for sarin gas and up to 50 tons mustard gas – roughly half of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles – according to Norwegian broadcaster NRK, citing an internal United Nations memo. 

Experts say Norway would be an ideal location for the task because it is a politically stable, wealthy nation with the water resources necessary to dilute the chemicals. But it is currently prohibited from disposing of organic toxic waste material, and members of the newly elected coalition government are at odds over whether Norway can – or should – shoulder the task.

“We don’t have the experience and we don’t have the equipment,” said Foreign Minister Borge Brende, at his first foreign-press briefing since taking office last week, citing the volumes of chemicals only as massive. “We have an expert group looking into this with the aim of clearing this up as soon as possible, but we cannot be in a situation before we have the necessary information to take a serious well-informed decision.”

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Norway, he noted, would first need to secure export agreements with neighboring countries for disposal of organic toxic material, and would also need special mobile destruction units sent from the US. 

The Norwegian minister is under increased political pressure to accept the task after US Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted the destruction of Syrian weapons during a congratulatory call last week on his appointment under Norway’s new coalition government.

Mr. Brende, a Conservative party member, faces skepticism about the plan among members of the co-ruling Progress Party. The minister dismissed suggestions, however, that he felt an extra burden to act after the Norwegian Nobel Committee earlier this month decided to give the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is helping to eliminate the Syrian army’s stockpiles of poison gas. 

“Regardless of the Nobel Peace Prize, this is a human catastrophe we are seeing,” said Brende. “Norway in any circumstance would do its very best see how to enforce the UN Security Resolution.” 

The request for help comes at the same time as Norway finds itself being drawn into dealing with the crisis in Syria. The country is struggling to stem the rising number of jihadists in its extremist Muslim communities who are leaving to fight in Syria. Most recently, Norwegian police last weekend asked Interpol, the international police organization, to issue an alert for two Somali teenage sisters who ran away from their suburban Oslo home to help Muslims in the Syrian conflict. 

The chief of the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST), Benedicte Bjørnland, told Norwegian TV2 that some 30 to 40 people are estimated to have left Norway over the past few years to engage in jihad activities in Syria. PST also recently confirmed that its “suspicions had been strengthened” over the involvement of a Norwegian citizen in Kenya’s Westgate mall attack  – a man of Somali origin with possible links to the terror group Al Shabab. 

“PST is struggling to keep up with the growing trend of Islamic proselytizing and radicalism going on in parts of Oslo,” says Helge Lurås, director for the Center for International and Strategic Analysis in Oslo.