Syria, defeated by Israel in three wars and afraid its arch enemy had gained a nuclear arsenal, began in earnest to build a covert chemical weapons programme three decades ago, aided by its neighbours, allies and European chemical wholesalers.
Damascus lacked the technology and scientific capacity to set up a programme on its own, but with backing from foreign allies it amassed what is believed to be one of the deadliest stockpiles of nerve agent in the world, Western military experts said.
“Syria was quite heavily reliant on outside help at the outset of its chemical weapons programme, but the understanding now is that they have a domestic chemical weapons production capability,” said Amy Smithson of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, an expert on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
As Syria’s civil war enters its third year with 80,000 dead, chemical weapons are reported to have been used by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and there are also fears they could fall into the hands of militants seeking to destabilise the region.
As a result of the wars of 1967, 1973 and 1982, Syria sought to counter Israel’s military superiority.
Non-conventional weapons have already been used in the region. The late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons such as mustard gas and other nerve agents during the 1980s, including the killing of 5,000 Kurds in Halabja, during the war with Iran.
Syria’s ally Iran is accused by the West of seeking to develop an atomic bomb, which it denies, while Israel refuses to confirm or deny whether it has nuclear weapons.
“Syria had to have something to stack up against Israel,” Smithson told Reuters.
United Nations human rights investigators said on Tuesday they had “reasonable grounds” to believe that limited amounts of chemical weapons had been used in Syria. They had received allegations that government forces and rebels had used the banned weapons, but most testimony related to their use by the government.
Syria is one of only seven countries not to have joined the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which commits members to completely destroying their stockpiles.
Syria does not generally comment on its chemical weapons, but in July last year it acknowledged for the first time that it had them. Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told a news conference the army would not use chemical weapons to crush the rebels but could use them against foreign forces.