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Port dubbed 'Cathedral of the Mafia' to host transfer of Syria chemical weapons

The Gioia Tauro port in southern Italy is seen from a nearby beach in February 2014. The port, nicknamed the Cathedral of the Mafia, will be where the MV Cape Ray will pick up the most dangerous parts of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal.

GIOIA TAURO, Italy — A couple of months back, the drugs and weapons found beneath a thicket of red and white cranes in the mountains of shipping containers at Italy’s port in Gioia Tauro led U.S. and Italian law enforcement to arrest 26 members of the Gambino and ‘Ndrangheta crime families.

It’s the sort of thing expected of a port nicknamed “The Cathedral of the Mafia,” the place through which an estimated 80 percent of Europe’s cocaine flows.

Later this spring, though, Danish and Norwegian sailors will transfer the worst bits of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal onto the American MV Cape Ray, and U.S. sailors will take it out to sea for destruction. Experts excitedly note that this will make the world a safer place.

Making the world safer isn’t the sort of thing commonly associated with this port, found about where the laces would begin near the toe of the boot of Italy.

“At first there was worry that we wouldn’t be safe with the chemicals here, but this is our chance to play a role in world peace,” resident Antonio Forelli said as he stood near the port in February. “We like that. It’s different for us.”

The nearby coastline is dramatic, with orange and olive groves rolling down steep hills toward sharp cliffs or sandy beaches. Medieval towns dot the landscape. The always active Stromboli island volcano is occasionally visible on the western horizon.

The port is considered one of the foundations of the wealth of the ‘Ndrangheta crime family, a Mafia clan that accounts for an estimated 3.5 percent of Italy’s annual gross domestic product and is said to make more money in a year than McDonald’s.

If destroying a massive and lethal chemical weapons arsenal is a dangerous road-trip movie, this is the sort of block they’d pick in Hollywood as a location for the story.

And make no mistake: What will happen here once the ships arrive is of an epic scale.

“I think the importance of eliminating Syrian chemical weapons has been underestimated by politicians and journalists alike,” Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow and chemical weapons expert with the Arms Control Association, wrote in an email answer to questions. “The elimination of Syrian chemical weapons is an historic and critical milestone in the international community’s 90-year effort to end the scourge of chemical weapons — a pariah even among the awful tools of war.”

Right now Danish and Norwegian ships are loaded with all of Syria’s mustard gas, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and something short of half of the most dangerous precursor chemicals for mixing into the deadly sarin and VX gases. Once they have all of those dangerous precursors, a load expected to total about 617 tons, they’ll steam away from Syria. To meet them, the MV Cape Ray will leave its spot along the Spanish Atlantic coast. Gioia Tauro is about halfway across the Mediterranean Sea.

When they meet here, the port — one of Europe’s busiest — will shut down for 48 hours. The crane thicket will pull the containers of dangerous chemicals from the Danish and Norwegian ships, and load them straight onto the Cape Ray. A U.S. defense official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to talk to journalists, said the transfer would be ship to ship, that the chemicals wouldn’t set down even temporarily on Italian docks.

With that cargo, the massive Cape Ray will push off into the Mediterranean, where its two Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems will be used to neutralize the chemicals. It will be the coda to the Syrian chemical weapons story that’s gripped much of the world since last August, when missiles carrying deadly sarin rained down on two Damascus suburbs, killing hundreds.

But for those who work in the field, there have been few arsenals more troubling than Syria’s for more than a decade. Until recently, the size and lethality of the stockpile could only be guessed. The stockpile was secret, kind of. Unofficially it was a Syrian answer to Israel’s equally almost-secret nuclear and chemical weapons programs. Neither nation’s stockpile could be completely secret, in order to work as a threat, but mystery shrouded both.

Since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, concern about the country’s weapons had been growing fast, as experts wondered whether it was truly secret, truly safe. Among the resistance to the government of Bashar Assad, there’s a sizable contingent of fighters who are tied to groups that either are associated with or in competition with al-Qaida.

Many think that a fear of terrorists obtaining such a sizable chemical weapons stockpile has shaped international, and certainly Western, reaction to the war. An estimated 150,000 people are estimated to have died in that conflict.

Jean Pascal Zanders, one of the world’s leading experts on chemical weapons policy, said the savagery of that war should never be overlooked. At the same time, eliminating the Syrian arsenal is a sign of global hope.

Syria’s arsenal is something of a white whale in the anti-chemical-weapons world, in recent years perhaps trailing only the stockpiles in Russia and the United States, both of which are in the process of a decadelong destruction program.

Syria was one of seven nations that hadn’t signed the Chemical Weapons Convention but were thought to possess such weapons. The others are Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea and South Sudan. Experts question the size and age, and even existence, of several of those arsenals. And while North Korea is always a wild card, Syria was thought to be the greatest threat to use or lose its weapons. The desire to convince Assad to destroy the stockpile was high.

“The hope is that the progress in Syria will lead to progress elsewhere, at least in the region,” Zanders said. “What’s happened to date is very good news for the rest of the world. What is expected to come soon is even better.”

Michael Luhan, the spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, noted that the international deadline agreed to with Syria for the destruction to be complete is June 30, and that “We’re not at all on track, according to the original plan.”

Even an amended deadline for removing all the most dangerous chemicals, those that the Cape Ray will destroy, by the end of this month looks a bit dicey, as the Syrian pace for delivering chemicals to the boats waiting at Latakia appears to have slowed. The last delivery was on April 4, and the one before that was March 20. At this point, less than half of the most dangerous (Schedule 1) chemicals have been loaded.

However, while past chemical weapons-destruction programs have taken many years, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has accomplished quite a bit in Syria in seven months. All of Syria’s manufacturing, mixing and chemical loading equipment has been destroyed, the organization says. With the removal of all the mustard gas, no chemical weapons remain in Syria today, according to the organization, though there are chemicals that can be mixed to form them (the group says 86 percent of the Schedule 2 chemicals needed for that process are on shipboard at this point, however).

Richard Guthrie, a former project leader of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said the progress would have been a dream scenario a year ago.

“In five years, we won’t look back and be disappointed that deadlines weren’t met,” he said. “If we’d followed normal process, we’d still be in the middle of the planning stage. But this wasn’t a normal situation, and I believe that when we look back, we’ll be thrilled that a serious threat was eliminated so quickly. That’s how we should define success.”

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