The roots of Syria’s chemical weapons program lie decades in the past. Over the years, US intelligence experts have gone back and forth as to exactly when the effort began, but it is likely Syria began the effort decades ago, and possibly as early as the 1970s.
“Damascus probably developed its chemical weapons program in response to a perceived threat from Israel,” concludes a 2012 Congressional Research Service (CRS) analysis of the subject, citing US intelligence reports.
Some analysts believe that Egypt provided Syria with chemical weapons on the eve of the October 1973 Yom Kippur war. There are reports that Israeli troops captured stockpiles of gas munitions during the conflict but Syria apparently decided not to use them in spite of its eventual defeat.
In 1979, Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel fractured already-weak Arab unity in the region. Syrian-Turkish relations deteriorated due to conflicts over water rights, among other things. Syria’s then-patron the USSR decided to support theocratic Iran, secular Syria’s adversary, in the Iran-Iraq War.