The shelling of suburban Damascus with a suspected nerve agent last week was potentially the third large-scale use of a chemical weapon in the Middle East and may have broken the longest period in history without such an attack.
If confirmed, the attack, which U.S. officials say warrants a decisive military response from the West, would dash hopes that the world would never again see the large-scale use of chemical weapons, a prospect that had appeared increasingly realistic in recent years as all but a handful of nations signed a treaty agreeing to destroy their stockpiles.
If the weapons were deployed by the Syrian government, as Western officials allege, it would represent the first major chemical weapons attack by a nation against its own citizens since Saddam Hussein gassed Kurds in northern Iraq in 1988, an act so barbaric it galvanized the movement for a world free of chemical weapons.
The other two large-scale chemical weapons attacks in the region were carried out by Iraq against Iran during their war in the 1980s and by Egypt, which backed southern Yemen during the Yemen war in the 1960s.
Chemical weapons attacks have at times elicited strong and visceral reactions from the international community. Their possible occurrence in Syria is no exception, having drawn the United States and its allies closer than they have ever been to intervening militarily in a messy conflict in which the West has enemies on both sides of the front lines.
Although U.S. and other Western officials have alleged that Syria previously used chemical weapons on a smaller scale, the latest incident has prompted a more vigorous response.
“What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Monday at the State Department, vowing that the Syrian government would be held accountable for what he called a “moral obscenity.”
Kerry said he had been repulsed by footage of “bodies contorting in spasms” and a searing image of a father holding up his child’s corpse, calling them pictures of “human suffering we can never ignore or forget.”
While tens of thousands of Syrians have been killed in shelling, bombings, ambushes and shootings, no other act in the country’s conflict, which has been raging since 2011, has drawn such strong condemnation from the United States. Experts say the alleged use of nerve agents is particularly jarring because such attacks are indiscriminate, lead to blood-curdling footage of the aftermath and have long-lasting consequences for survivors.
“There is something kind of grotesque about these weapons,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on weapons of mass destruction at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “It’s a pretty awful way to die, and there are long-term effects for victims, who are left with ugly health-care problems.”
World War I was the first conflict that featured widespread use of chemical weapons. At least 90,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands more were wounded with those munitions during the war, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which monitors global disarmament efforts.