By Martin Matishak - 08/18/14 06:23 PM EDT
The United States has finished destroying nearly 600 tons of Syria’s known chemical weapons, President Obama announced Monday.
The most lethal agents of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s declared stockpile of deadly weapons were neutralized aboard the U.S. ship Cape Ray “several weeks ahead of schedule,” the president said in a statement.
The president hailed the United Nations and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for their work spearheading an international effort that has included Denmark, Norway, Italy, Finland, Germany and the United Kingdom.
The Assad government agreed to turn over its chemical stockpile last year after the U.S. threatened missile strikes following a chemical attack on rebel forces in Damascus believed to have killed more than 1,000 people a year ago.
“No one can or ever will wipe away that memory,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement Monday.
Finland has already destroyed some of Syria’s chemicals, and Britain and Germany are also assisting in their destruction.
The destruction of the toxins, carried out by the Defense Department, is a desperately needed foreign policy win for an administration that has struggled to contain conflicts in Iraq, Ukraine and Gaza.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called the crew aboard the Cape Ray to commend them 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,” according to a transcript provided by the Pentagon.
The chemicals aboard the Cape Ray included roughly 581 tons of the precursor material used to produce sarin, a nerve agent, and 19.8 tons of material used to make mustard gas, a defense official told The Hill.
The U.S. ship will now deliver the “effluent” material, or byproduct, to Finland and then Germany for further processing by commercial and government facilities, according to the official.
The OPCW has yet to destroy the 12 declared chemical production facilities in Syria; that operation is expected to take at least six more months. The OPCW in June released data showing that “toxic chemicals” such as chlorine were used in a number of attacks in Syria this year.
In his statement, Obama noted that “serious questions remain with respect to the omissions and discrepancies in Syria’s declaration” to the international watchdog.
The regime did not have to declare its stockpile of chlorine as part of the disarmament deal because it is often used for commercial and domestic purposes.
“These concerns must be addressed, and we will work closely with the OPCW and the international community to seek resolution of these open issues, even as we broadly press the Assad regime to end the horrific atrocities it continues to commit against its people,” Obama said.