A specially equipped U.S. vessel departed from Spain on Wednesday to destroy the most dangerous warfare chemicals surrendered by Syria's government.
Ending a months-long stop at Spain's Rota naval base, the MV Cape Ray left for the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro to retrieve an estimated 560 tons of mustard blister agent and other materials extracted from Syria's war-fractured territory. The move took place two days after President Bashar Assad's regime delivered the last of its declared chemical-warfare stockpile into international custody, enabling the commencement of a destruction operation slated to take place in the Mediterranean Sea.
Defense Department spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the boat's initial trip to Italy "is expected to take several days."
Upon arriving at Gioia Tauro, the Cape Ray would receive chemicals shipped from Syria onboard the Danish vessel Ark Futura. The U.S. vessel would then embark for international waters, where it would employ a chemical process to render the substances largely harmless.
Earlier this year, the ship's captain said the neutralization process could take between 45 and 90 days, depending on local weather conditions.
Kirby stressed on Wednesday that the effort would be "safe and environmentally sound." His statement echoed months of Pentagon assurances issued as arms-control experts and residents of Mediterranean countries aired concerns about the mission's safety.
Despite Washington's stated confidence that the operation would proceed smoothly, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday said it would still prove "painstaking."
The Cape Ray is expected to operate under the protection of an international armed escort, organized as part of a multilateral disarmament initiative launched late last year. The United States teamed with other governments to eliminate the Syrian arsenal following a sarin nerve-agent release that Washington believes to have killed more than 1,400 people in rebel-controlled territory.
Assad's government acknowledged the stockpile's existence and agreed to its destruction after the deadly incident prompted other countries to consider responding with military force. However, Damascus continues to deny responsibility for the August strike in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus.