The only countries that have not signed the treaty are Angola, Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan and Syria. Israel has signed but not ratified it.
Experts think Syria has one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, including sarin, tabun, mustard gas and the nerve agent VX.
Several Middle Eastern nations stocked up on chemical weapons over the past century, along with the rest of the world, but few deployed them. Egypt did so in the 1960s during the civil war in North Yemen, using Soviet-supplied munitions. But Western nations, which were eager to build partnerships with Egypt at the time, largely ignored evidence of those attacks.
Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi dictator, used nerve agents during his country’s war with Iran in the 1980s. Washington, which feared an Iranian victory, was well aware of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons but nonetheless supplied Baghdad with intelligence, according to declassified intelligence reports disclosed Monday by Foreign Policy.
As that conflict was coming to a close, Hussein ordered a massive gas attack on Halabja, a Kurdish village in northern Iraq, killing thousands. The operation, launched to quell a Kurdish uprising, was the largest chemical attack in history and was one reason Iraq became a global pariah in the following decades.
U.S. officials have said military action in response to last week’s attack in Syria is imminent, but they have not said exactly what they are contemplating. The Obama administration has been extraordinarily reluctant to inject itself militarily into the conflict, in large part because it is not confident that doing so would influence the war in a way that would advance U.S. interests.
Iran and the Shiite Lebanese militant group Hezbollah are backing the Syrian government, while Sunni insurgents affiliated with al-Qaeda are among the most effective fighters on the rebel side.
“This is why you haven’t seen anything happen,” said Cindy Vestergaard, a senior researcher who specializes in chemical weapons at the Danish Institute for International Studies. “There is a big potential for a proxy war with Iran.”