Ship Eats Syria’s Deadly Chemicals in Weeks

Syrian chemical agents destruction

After patiently sitting in port for months, the specially outfitted U.S. container vessel MV Cape Ray only took weeks to decimate Syria’s chemical weapon precursors.

The 648-long-ship in January set sail from Portsmouth, Virginia, to the Mediterranean Sea, but was forced to spend months in Rota, Spain, waiting for Syria to turn over its stockpile of deadly chemicals.

The vessel in early July began dismantling some 600 tons of a nerve gas precursor and 20 tons of a mustard agent using a process called hydrolysis, which uses water and other reactants to neutralize and break down the chemicals. The work, which took place in international waters in the Med, wrapped up this week.


Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel even called Navy Captain Rich Dromerhauser aboard the ship to congratulate the him and the crew on completing the difficult and dangerous task, which only took 41 days — much quicker than expected.

Syria, under the regime of Bashar Assad, agreed to give up the chemicals as part of an internationally brokered deal that prevented a U.S. military intervention in the country. More than 150,000 people have been killed in the three-year-old civil war, according to a human-rights group.

The conflict has helped fuel the rise of the Islamic militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, the al-Qaida inspired Islamic organization that controls parts of Syria and Iraq. The organization on Tuesday circulated video showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley.

Syria blamed the delay in transferring the chemicals out of the country on the ongoing fighting within its borders.

MV Cape Ray

The Cape Ray isn’t actually part of the U.S. Navy fleet. The 36-year-old vessel is maintained by the Transportation Department’s Maritime Administration as part of the so-called Ready Reserve Force, a fleet of almost 50 commercial ships that can be activated to support defense emergencies.

After the high-profile chemical dismantling mission, the ship is headed to Finland for the less glamorous job of dropping off the waste materials, which will be disposed of commercially.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • hank

    I sure hope we sent Assad the bill but we’re not the smart.

    • Rod

      Aren’t the smart at all.

    • rtsy

      Syria claimed poverty on this one, too busy dropping barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods.

      Instead over 30 countries are footing the bill, most simply by free use of their facilities like Finland, the UK, and the US of course.

      Total cost is estimated at over $250,000,000.

      • blight_asdf

        I guess we could seize Syrian government assets overseas…similar treatment that we extend to the Iranian government.

        • rtsy

          I like that idea. I hear the latest fad in vulture finance is going after Russian assets abroad. It sure as hell beats sanctions against individuals.

      • Bobby

        Small price to get those weapons out of a extremely unstable area. What would be the price of a group like ISIS getting this crap? a lot more than $250M. Just a thought.

  • rtsy

    The real question is why we don’t use this ship to destroy our own stockpiles the way we’ve been promising to do for decades.

    Also, it should be noted that only the declared Syrian stockpiles were turned over and destroyed. Assad is still using WWI style chlorine gas and could have other chemical weapons hidden in reserve.

    • LPF

      What chemical weapons is the west stockpiling???

      • Guest

        We’re destroying our stockpiles, some stockpiles have been completely destroyed. It just takes a long, long, long, long, long time to finish. Recall we made chemical weapons during the Reagan administration, as well as at other times. If you don’t know, you better ask somebody.

      • rtsy

        Stockpiles , not stockpiling. We have huge stocks of all kinds of chem weapons including mortar rounds, mines, cluster bombs, and artillery shells holding mustard gas, vx nerve agent, and sarin.

        Yes, we have already destroyed tens of thousands of tons of this stuff, but our current supply is still larger than everything Assad turned over to us.

        As for taking a long time, it would go quicker if the MSV Cape Ray were included in the process which is the point I was trying to make.

        • FormerDirtDart

          Destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles have been completed at Pine Bluff Arsenal, AR(Pine Bluff Chemical Activity); Hawthorne Army Depot, NV; Johnston Atoll (all overseas based weapons); Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD(Edgewood Chemical Activity); Newport Chemical Depot, IN; Anniston Army Depot, AL(Anniston Chemical Activity); Umatilla Chemical Depot, OR; and Deseret Chemical Depot, UT.

          Remaining stockpiles at Pueblo Chemical Depot, CO and Blue Grass Army Depot, KY are scheduled for destruction, with facilities completed or being constructed.

          I would offer that changing the plan might actually delay completing weapons destruction.

          If the shipboard systems were moved to a land site, entirely new plans would have to be made. Not the least of which is environmental impact studies. New public hearing, and the expected court challenges delaying implementation.

          Now, if the plan was to leave the system aboard the ship, you would have to move massive quantities of chemical agents across the US. Tell me that wouldn’t be a problem.

          • rtsy

            It wouldn’t be a problem.

            We already move thousands of tons of toxic chemicals across rail and roads, with very few incidents.

            If this were Iraq it’d be a different story.

  • Phono

    Fine this weapons are gone, but what remains is a geopolitical mess anyways. Who can be really happy with all the consequences of this solution? The syria-politic of western states is the root of evil in the 21st -century. We won the battle about this chem.-menace but in geopolitics we’re now completly lost, having to deal with IS, having to deal with assad, are indirect with russia and the iran on the syrian battlefield and lost all initiative to other players.

    • Phono

      “The syria-politic of western states is the root of evil in the 21st -century.”
      To correct myself: more causative for the desaster in Syria still is the russian obstruction of any UN-based solution, their threat of delivering S400 to Assad and other support for the cruel dictator. But did we deal with that in any way or did we just look away?

  • The_Dude

    Decimate means to kill one in ten. In other words, leaving 90% intact. The term came from the punishment for Roman Legions who broke ranks during battle – every 10th Soldier would be executed. The editors should know this and use a more accurate term, such as “destroy” or “eliminate”, unless what they really mean is that the ship leaves 90% of the chemical weapons intact.

    • William

      I actually didn’t know that. That’s an interesting tid-bit of history. I will argue your point though, that for the average layman like myself who didn’t know that, the colloquial meaning of decimate is synonymous with annihilate and in this sense it was used correctly.

      • Ziv

        William, you have a point, but as my Mom used to say, “If everyone else is jumping off a cliff, are you going to jump too?” Using a word incorrectly isn’t quite jumping off a cliff but a bit of pushback is warranted.
        But then when people use “loose” when they mean “lose” it drives me crazy so I may be bit too interested in using the language we have inherited correctly. And don’t get me started on “their”…

      • guest

        decimate is to reduce; annihilate is to eliminate. Not synonymous in any context.

  • guest

    Just curious as to what happened to the equipment used to manufacture this material in the first place. I wager that it is still in Syria. Another thing: Since Syria is adjacent to Iraq, what are the odds that much of this material originated in Iraq, ie, the WMD’s that could not be found. I say this bc democrats aren’t fans of the whole truth aspect in what they tell people.

  • SteveInMontana

    It is so nice to see that the U.S. finally has a ship that can do the job. When I was on Johnston Atoll in the 1970’s, the U.S. had to hire a Dutch ship, The Vulcanus, to burn up all of our Agent Orange. Then the U.S. spent hundreds of millions to get rid of all the nerve and mustard gas we had by building an incinerator plant on the island. That was in the 80’s and early 90’s. Seems toi me that if they’d built the incinerator plant in the 70’s we could have killed two birds with one stone and saved a ton of money in the process.

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