Following months of delays, skepticism and waiting, the U.S. military ship tasked with destroying chemical weapons belonging to the Syrian regime left its Spanish port bound for Italy Wednesday morning, signaling that all declared chemical weapons have been removed from the war-ravaged Middle Eastern nation.
The USS Cape Ray is steaming for Gioia Tauro, Italy, the Pentagon announced Wednesday morning, where it will follow through on its plan of meeting up with the Danish vessel Ark Futura. That ship received all of the Bashar Assad regime’s most deadly chemical weapons from a port in Syria, and will transfer the chemicals in shipping containers to the Cape Ray.
After the transfer is complete, the Cape Ray will sail for international waters, where it will begin an estimated 45-day process of turning the chemicals – including sarin and VX gas – into materials no more hazardous than common household solvents, Defense Department experts say.
“We will work hard to destroy these materials so they never again pose a threat to the Syrian people or America's allies in the region,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement. The transfer process in Italy is expected to take several days.
The news follows months of reports that Assad and regime forces failed to follow through on commitments to round up chemical weapons from 23 declared sites, transport them through an active war zone and deliver them to the Syrian port town of Latakia. Following a series of sea trials off the U.S. coast, the Cape Ray sailed for the Mediterranean in January and has remained there since.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was overseeing the operation. The original deadline called for Assad to deliver the entirety of the chemical weapons by Dec. 31 of last year.
OPCW chief Ahmet Uzumcu, however, told CNN that the removal of all declared weapons does not ensure there are no chemical weapons left in Syria.
"We cannot say for sure it has no more chemical weapons," he said. "All we can do is work on the basis of verifying a country's declarations of what they have. I would not make any speculation to possible remaining assets, substances, chemical weapons.”
The civil war in Syria erupted in 2011, and allegations of chemical weapons use soon followed. Reports first circulated in March 2013 that Assad’s forces purposefully employed chemical weapons against rebel fighters and innocent civilians. His regime immediately blamed evidence of the tactic on the rebels themselves.
President Barack Obama came under fire by claiming in late 2012 that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be a “red line” for the U.S. After chemical weapons use was confirmed by the U.N., he moved warships into the region but ultimately balked at ordering airstrikes, giving the decision instead to Congress to make.