The Syrian regime's apparent use of chemical weapons against civilian areas on August 21 constitutes a breach of the Geneva Protocol of 1925, one of the world's most important disarmament treaties, which banned the use of chemical weapons. The Obama administration has made clear that the only way the Syrian regime could avoid U.S. military strikes on their country would be to place their chemical weapons stockpiles under control of the United Nations or otherwise rid themselves of ever again using them.
In 1993, the international community came together to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), a binding international treaty that would also prohibit the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, and transfer or use of chemical weapons. Syria is one of only eight of the world's 193 countries not party to the convention.
However, U.S. policy regarding chemical weapons has been so inconsistent and politicized that the United States is in no position to take leadership in a military response to any use of such weaponry by Syria.
Neither of the world's two largest recipients of U.S. military aid -- Israel and Egypt -- is a party to the convention either. Never has Congress or any administration of either party called on Israel or Egypt to disarm their chemical weapons arsenals, much less threatened war for their failure to do so. U.S. policy, therefore, appears to be that while it is legitimate for its allies Israel and Egypt to refuse to ratify this important arms control convention, Syria needed to be singled out for punishment for its refusal.
It's not as if Syria is the only country which has actually engaged in chemical warfare. Egypt used phosgene and mustard gas in the mid-1960s during its intervention in Yemen's civil war. The U.S.-backed Egyptian regime has continued its chemical weapons research and development program.
Israel is widely believed to have produced and stockpiled an extensive range of chemical weapons and to be engaged in ongoing research and development of additional chemical weaponry. Indeed, Syria may have began its chemical weapons program as a direct response to Israel's chemical, biological and nuclear programs.
It was the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, which used chemical weapons on a scale far greater than any country had dared since their banning following World War I. The Iraqis inflicted close to 100,000 casualties among Iranian soldiers using banned chemical agents, resulting in 20,000 deaths and tens of thousands of long-term injuries.
They were unable to do this alone, however. Despite ongoing Iraqi support for Abu Nidal and other terrorist groups during the 1980s, the Reagan administration removed Iraq from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism to provide the regime with thiodiglycol, a key component in the manufacture of mustard gas, and other chemical precursors for their weapons program. In fact, recently released CIA documents show that DIA personnel were dispatched to Baghdad during the war to provide Saddam Hussein's regime with U.S. satellite data on the location of Iranian troop concentrations in the full knowledge that the Iraqis were using chemical weapons against them.
Even the Iraqi regime's use of chemical weapons against civilians was not seen as particularly problematic. The March 1988 massacre in the northern Iraqi city of Halabja, where Saddam's forces murdered up to 5,000 Kurdish civilians with chemical weapons, was downplayed by the Reagan administration, with some officials even falsely claiming that Iran was actually responsible. The United States continued sending aid to Iraq even after the regime's use of poison gas was confirmed. Bothe the Reagan and Bush administrations blocked Congressional efforts to place sanctions on the Iraqi regime in response to the chemical weapons attacks.
Ironically, after denying and covering up Iraq's use of chemical weapons in the late 1980s, the U.S. government -- first under President Bill Clinton and then under President George W. Bush -- then began insisting that Iraq's alleged chemical weapons stockpile was a dire threat, even though the country had completely destroyed its stockpile by 1993 and completely dismantled its chemical weapons program.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been leading the administration's efforts to convince Congress to go to war, insists that "Chemical weapons were used by the [Syria] regime. We know this." However, as a senator in the fall of 2002, he falsely claimed that "Iraq has chemical and biological weapons ... and [their weapons programs] are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War." House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who is leading the pro-war effort in that chamber, insists that Syria's use of chemical weapons is "undeniable." On NBC's "Meet the Press" in November 2002, however, she falsely claimed that Iraq "certainly" had chemical weapons and that there was "no question about that."
Even though they are probably telling the truth this time, this record of deceit makes it difficult to trust U.S. government officials when it comes to accusations regarding hostile Arab governments and chemical weapons.
Even more problematic has been U.S. efforts to block region-wide efforts at disarmament.
UN Security Council Resolution 687, the resolution passed at the end of the 1991 Gulf War demanding the destruction of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons and the dismantling of its nuclear program, also called on member states "to work towards the establishment in the Middle East of a zone free of such weapons."
Syria has joined virtually all other Arab states in calling for such a "weapons of mass destruction-free zone" for the entire Middle East. In December 2003, Syria introduced a UN Security Council resolution reiterating this clause from 12 years earlier, but the resolution was tabled as a result of a threatened U.S. veto.
A case can be made, then, that had the United States pursued a policy that addressed the proliferation of nonconventional weapons through region-wide disarmament rather than trying to single out Syria, the Syrian regime would have rid itself of its chemical weapons some years earlier, along with Israel and Egypt, and the tragic use of such ordnance and the resulting rush to war would have never happened.
This article is based on the article The U.S. and Chemical Weapons: No Leg to Stand On, which originally appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus on May 2, 2013
Follow Stephen Zunes on Twitter: www.twitter.com/#szunes