BERLIN — The last known components of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal steamed away from that war-torn nation Monday. While their removal came a bit behind schedule, it was hailed by experts as a major milestone that makes the world a safer place.
The final load of chemicals used to produce deadly and dangerous weapons such as sarin and mustard gas left Syria aboard a Danish ship that sailed from the port of Latakia. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, Netherlands, which oversaw Syria’s chemical disarmament, noted that never before had weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country embroiled in armed conflict.
Ahmet Uzumcu, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ director-general, was cautious in hailing the departure of the last chemical weapons components that the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad had declared. But he was optimistic that the organization would be able to ferret out any weapons Syria had hidden from inspectors. “We cannot say that all chemical weapons have left Syria,” he said, “but there are mechanisms in place to investigate if there are suspicions.”
He noted that Western intelligence assessments of the size of Syria’s chemical arsenal were very similar to the 1,300 tons that Syria declared _ and that have now been either destroyed or removed from the country.
“The mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program has been a major undertaking marked by an extraordinary international cooperation,” he said during a Monday news conference.
The Danish ship will head across the Mediterranean Sea to the port in Gioia Tauro, Italy, where a specially trained U.S. military crew on the specially outfitted MV Cape Ray will take on about 560 tons of the most dangerous chemicals, then head out to sea, where they will be destroyed. The destruction aboard the ship could take 60 days.
The destruction of other parts of the arsenal, and the effluent from the Cape Ray’s efforts, would take a couple months longer.
The removal of the last of the chemicals came one week before a deadline that the United States and Russia agreed to last September when they negotiated the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.
In noting the removal, White House press secretary Josh Earnest recalled the Aug. 21, 2013, chemical attack outside Damascus that killed hundreds. Russia proposed ending Syria’s chemical weapons capability to head off threatened U.S. airstrikes.
“There is no starker reminder that for almost 100 years, the international community has deemed the use of these weapons to be far beyond the bounds of acceptable conduct,” Earnest said. “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.”
Daryl G. Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, called the Syrian disarmament “unprecedented” and “a major milestone that will help protect Syria’s beleaguered and battered population from further, large-scale chemical weapons attacks.”
He said it “has been far more successful in destroying the stockpile and protecting the Syrian people than the alternative contemplated in September: U.S. cruise missile strikes against chemical weapons targets.”
Uzumcu said the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons remains concerned by allegations that the Syrian government has used chlorine gas in so-called barrel bombings of rebel-held areas in recent months and said the OPCW would continue to investigate. But he also said that while using chlorine would be a violation of the chemical weapons treaty, chlorine itself is not a banned chemical weapon.
“Chlorine is not a declarable substance,” he said. “It is used every day in every country in the world.”