By Rebecca Shabad and Justin Sink - 06/23/14 09:24 AM EDT
Syria’s entire chemical weapons stockpile has been removed, the international watchdog overseeing its destruction announced Monday.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapon’s (OPCW) director general, Ahmet Uzumcu, said the final 8 percent of the 1,300-ton chemical arsenal was removed from Syria.
“A major landmark in this mission has been reached today,” Uzumcu said. “The last of the remaining chemicals identified for removal from Syria were loaded this afternoon aboard the Danish ship Ark Futura. The ship made its last call at the port of Latakia in what has been a long and patient campaign in support of this international endeavor.”
The White House hailed the Syria shipment as an "important milestone.”
"The removal of these materials sends a clear message that the use of these abhorrent weapons has consequences and will not be tolerated by the international community," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
The removal of the chemical weapons could provide a rare foreign policy win for the Obama administration.
Last year, President Obama asked Congress to authorize military strikes against Syria in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburbs.
But as Congress appeared ready to balk on the president's request, Russia brokered a deal by which the Assad regime could avoid the military strikes.
Critics of the administration have suggested that the deal emboldened the Syrian government, at the expense of moderate Sunnis. As a result, Islamic extremist groups — including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, credited with attacks throughout much of northern Iraq — have gained a foothold.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) on Monday said it was “too soon to declare victory” in Syria and criticized Obama’s foreign policy moves.
Inhofe said the White House’s “lack of strategic leadership … is creating a dangerous terrorist safe haven in the region that poses great threat to Americans and our national security.”
Earnest said the White House had been "worried for some time about the destabilizing impact that the violence in [Syria] could have throughout the region."
"The fact that Syria has now, you know, declared that they have chemical weapons, signed the treaty and has cooperated with the international community to dispose of those declared chemical weapons is an important step," Earnest said.
"And there was some justified skepticism by people in this room and by other close observers of the situation about whether or not Syria would actually follow through. And they did, thanks primarily, again, to the work of the international community to hold them to account to follow through on this mission."
Despite their statement about the final shipment, OPCW officials released a preliminary report last week in which they found evidence that proves “toxic chemicals,” including chlorine, were used in a number of attacks in Syria this year.
Obama administration officials have refrained from describing chlorine as a chemical weapon.
Martin Matishak contributed.
— This story was updated at 2 p.m.