The Complex

Syria’s Most Lethal Chemical Weapons Destroyed With Little Fanfare

Almost a year after a sarin gas attack killed more than 1,400 people outside Damascus, the U.S. Defense Department quietly announced Monday that Syria’s most dangerous chemicals have been neutralized. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Navy Capt. Richard Dromerhauser aboard the U.S. container ship MV Cape Ray Monday morning, Aug. 18, to congratulate his crew ...

MARIO LAPORTA/AFP/Getty Images
MARIO LAPORTA/AFP/Getty Images

Almost a year after a sarin gas attack killed more than 1,400 people outside Damascus, the U.S. Defense Department quietly announced Monday that Syria’s most dangerous chemicals have been neutralized.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Navy Capt. Richard Dromerhauser aboard the U.S. container ship MV Cape Ray Monday morning, Aug. 18, to congratulate his crew on finishing their work weeks ahead of schedule, according to the Pentagon. It was the first time the United States ever attempted to destroy chemical weapons at sea.

"While the international community’s work to completely eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program is not yet finished, the secretary believes this is a clear demonstration of what can be achieved when diplomacy is backed by a willingness to use military force," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement.

Later in the day, the White House issued a statement from President Barack Obama following remarks he made at the White House in which the topic did not come up.

"Going forward, we will watch closely to see that Syria fulfills its commitment to destroy its remaining declared chemical weapons production facilities," the statement read.

Plus, "serious questions" remain about whether Syria declared all of its chemical weapons and whether the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is still using chemical weapons against its people, the president said.

There have been several reports that the Syrian government may still be using chlorine gas in opposition areas.

"These concerns must be addressed, and we will work closely with the OPCW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] and the international community to seek resolution of these open issues, even as we broadly press the Asad regime to end the horrific atrocities it continues to commit against its people."

Obama thanked Denmark, Norway, Italy, Finland, Germany, and the United Kingdom for key contributions to the mission. He also noted Russia’s and China’s assistance.

On Aug. 7, the OPCW said that roughly 74 percent of Syria’s declared stockpile was destroyed. And last week, the watchdog group announced that 581 metric tons of a precursor chemical for sarin gas was also destroyed. That left 19.8 metric tons of sulfur mustard to destroy.

U.S. civilian and military specialists aboard the MV Cape Ray have been destroying the Syrian stockpile since early July, when the chemical weapons were transferred from a Danish container ship. The U.S. ship was specially outfitted with two "field deployable hydrolysis systems" in which the chemical weapons are mixed with water and other chemicals before being heated up and neutralized.

Once the poisonous chemicals are rendered harmless, the liquid waste is disposed of at land-based facilities in Finland and Germany.

The elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons became the focus of the Obama administration’s response to the conflict in Syria after the administration accused Assad’s regime of using them in August 2013.

Obama had previously said that using chemical weapons would cross a "red line," but in the days following the August 2013 attack, the White House didn’t appear to have public or congressional support to act, putting Obama in an awkward position.

When Russia stepped in and proposed an international effort to identify and destroy Syria’s arsenal, the United States seized on it.

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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