The Pentagon has announced the completion of the destruction of the most dangerous of Syria's chemical weapons aboard the American ship MV Cape Ray. Since early July the ship has been in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea destroying 600 tons of a nerve gas precursor and 20 tons of mustard agent.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called the ship's crew on Monday to congratulate them on a job well done in a process that seems to have taken 41 days, far ahead of early estimates.
Hagel spoke with Navy Captain Rich Dromerhauser and "expressed his gratitude for the crew's service, dedication, and expertise, noting that with the world watching, they performed flawlessly every step of the way," said Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.
Kirby said Hagel told him that "commended the crew for conducting every aspect of the mission in a highly professional manner, with strict adherence to safety and with no impact to the surrounding environment, and said that they should all be very proud of what they've accomplished to help reduce the threat posed by chemical weapons."
"The secretary said that by ridding the world of these materials, they - as part of an ongoing international effort to eliminate the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal - have helped make an important and enduring contribution to global security," said Kirby.
He added the destruction of the chemicals is "clear demonstration of what can be achieved when diplomacy is backed by a willingness to use military force. The United States will remain vigilant in our efforts to deter future use of chemicals as weapons, and in ensuring that all questions about the extent of Assad's chemical weapons program are answered in full."
Last September Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated a deal with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons that averted potential U.S. military strikes on Syria. At the time tensions were high with anticipation that airstrikes might target Syria's chemical weapons stockpile in the wake of a Sarin gas attack in Damascus that it is believed killed 1,000 civilians.
The international agreement that followed laid out strict timetables for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons for eventual destruction.
Syria turned over its declared chemical stockpile in a slow and deliberate process it blamed on the civil war raging within its borders. That in turn led to delays that forced the Cape Ray to remain in a Spanish port for months as it waited for all of Syria's chemical weapons to be transferred out of the country.
The destruction of the chemicals aboard the Cape Ray began on July 7 shortly after they were transferred aboard at the Italian port of Gioia Tauro.
The ship then headed into international waters in the Mediterranean to begin the hydrolysis of the chemicals. The exact location of where the ship was in the Mediterranean was never made public, but Greek press reports indicated it was west of Crete.
The ship used a field hydrolysis system to neutralize 600 metric tons of DF, a precursor for sarin gas and other nerve agents, and 19 tons of HD, or sulfur mustard, into a residue product.
Original expectations were that the destruction of the chemicals might take at least 60 days to destroy the chemicals, but it appears to have taken 41 days.
The ship now heads to Finland where it will drop off the "effluent" liquid that is the waste product created by the hydrolysis process. That effluent itself is not harmful, but it will be disposed of in a landfill.
Earlier this year international investigators determined that Syria had probably used industrial chlorine gas in rebel held areas, long after it turned over its declared chemical weapons stockpile. Under the international agreement worked out last year Syria was not required to declare chlorine as part its chemical stockpile as it has many peaceful uses.