NEW YORK – The United States and its allies may be headed for a war that they could have tried harder to prevent.
The failure since the 1970s to put more pressure on Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons, plus American support for Iraq even after it used chemical agents against Iran, have contributed to what the U.S. and British governments say is a chemical attack by President Bashar Assad against opposition forces near Damascus that has killed hundreds, chemical arms experts said.
While other adversaries of the U.S., such as Iran and Russia, have signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development, stockpiling, transfer and use of chemical arms, Syria is among a handful of countries — including Egypt, North Korea, Somalia and Angola — that have not. Israel and Myanmar have signed the convention but not ratified it.
“Chemical weapons, whether used or not used, have the potential of igniting a major conflagration,” said Matthew Meselson, the co-director of the Harvard Sussex Program on Chemical and Biological Weapons. “We should have put maximum pressure on Syria, Israel and Egypt. We should have done this long ago.”
Syria’s initial chemical weapons capability was provided by Egypt prior to the 1973 war against Israel, and the nation has maintained its stockpiles as an “equalizer” to Israel’s nuclear threat, said Amy Smithson, a senior research fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington.
“It’s tough to persuade a despot to relinquish that, and to subject himself to international inspections,” Smithson said by phone.
Russia and Iran have provided technical assistance and precursor chemicals to Syria, while North Korea may have helped with delivery systems, and the government has subsequently developed its own ability to produce mustard gas, sarin and possibly the nerve agent VX, Smithson said.
Most Arab countries started developing chemical weapons programs after the North Yemen civil war in the 1960s, when republicans supplied with chemical weapons by Egypt defeated royalists supported by Saudi Arabia and Jordan, said Richard Guthrie, the editor of CBW Events, an online database of chemical and biological warfare who is doing a doctorate on chemical weapons at the University of Bath in England.
“When you’ve been on the losing side of a conflict, you look around to see what weapons were successful,” Guthrie said by phone Wednesday.
Syria’s subsequent defeat by Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war was a turning point in its chemical weapons program, he said.
The United Nations Security Council lost an opportunity to crack down on chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war in 1984, Guthrie said. After a U.N. team investigated reports of chemical attacks by President Saddam Hussein’s forces, the council issued a statement condemning the use of chemical weapons, without naming Iraq. The U.S., which supported Iraq at the time, blocked a more strongly worded statement, Guthrie said.
“The Iraqis read that as ‘the world doesn’t care,’ ” and the move sent a signal that Cold War alliances would prevent the international community from coming down hard on chemical weapons, he said.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 on the grounds that it possessed weapons of mass destruction, Libya took note and signed the Chemical Weapons Convention the following year, Smithson said.
While that also helped ease U.S. sanctions on Libya, and enabled it to resume oil shipments, Syria has never had any such economic incentive to give up its chemical weapons, Guthrie said.
At the United Nations, Russia is now playing the role on Syria’s behalf that the U.S. played with Iraq in the 1980s. Russia on Wednesday objected to a U.N. resolution that would have authorized military action to protect civilians, prompting the U.S. and Britain to say they are preparing to act without the international body’s approval.
Video footage of the aftermath of a suspected chemical attack Aug. 21 on Ghouta, near the capital, Damascus, shows people with symptoms such as narrowing of the pupils, excessive salivation and convulsions that point to exposure to sarin or another nerve agent, according to Ralf Trapp, a former scientific adviser at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
U.N. chemical inspectors entered the site of the alleged attacks in the Ghouta area, Al Arabiya television reported Wednesday. The team was unable to gain access to the site on Monday.
“The team needs time to do its job,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at a conference in The Hague. “It is essential to establish the facts.”
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in a letter last year that the government would not use chemical weapons, if it had any, under any circumstances, according to the OPCW, which is based in The Hague.
Syria is a party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol and has “accepted the legal obligation to respect the universally endorsed norm against the use of chemical weapons,” according to the OPCW.