"We categorically reject even the idea of using chemical weapons ... against our own pe ople," Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad said this week. "This is crazy, morally this is absolutely unacceptable, and no Syrian … from the government will do it."
The most recent — and by far the most devastating — occurred on August 21, when thousands of people were gassed while they slept in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta.
To realize how depraved it is to use nerve agents on innocent civilians, consider that the attack was "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."
That fact is currently being lost as Congress begins debating whether to approve limited military action in response to the Syrian government's actions.
Yet that's the thrust of the Obama administration's argument.
"Bashar al-Assad now joins the list of Adolph Hitler and Saddam Hussein [i.e., other rulers who] have used these weapons in time of war," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told NBC on Sunday. "This is of great consequence to Israel, to Jordan, to Turkey, to the region, and to all of us who care about enforcing the international norm with respect to chemical weapons."
The "threat" of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) — nuclear, biological, or chemical — is real, but one of the reasons people are hesitant to advocate a U.S. strike is because the threat of "WMDs" were used as a pretense to hasten the ouster of Hussein.
The pretense of the Iraq war notwithstanding, history provides insight into the wickedness of chemical weapons use.
In World War I poison gas was arguably the most feared of all weapons as several countries released more than 1.3 million tons of chemical agents — ranging from simple tear gas to mustard gas — and killed 90,000 men.
The gas, released in open air, spread with the speed and direction of the wind. The same thing happened outside of Damascus on August 21.
By World War II Nazi Germany had developed deadlier gasses and then took air out of the equation by releasing nerve agents in gas chambers. The effect was catastrophic — the largest chambers could kill 2,000 people at once — since the concentration of chemicals is highest in small spaces.
An Iranian soldier wearing a gas mask during the Iran-Iraq War.
The horrors of the World Wars, as well as the more recent example of Iraq causing 60,000 chemical weapons casualties in their war with Iran in the '80s, explain why the Obama administration would consider retaliating against a Syrian government chemical attack.
Furthermore, there is the added danger of Syria's chemical WMDs falling into the hands of extremists who would hesitate much less before wreaking chemical havoc on a part of the world.
That's why there has been a persistent fear throughout the Syrian conflict that Assad would transfer chemical weapons to Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based terrorist group and Iranian proxy that has more than 60,000 rockets pointed at Israel.
Syria and its allies have insisted that Assad is not crazy enough to deploy WMDs on his people. On Friday Russian President Vladimir Putin said it would be "utter nonsense" for Syria's government to provoke opponents with such attacks.
But overwhelming evidence indicates that he did just that. Now it's just a matter of what the international community is going to do about it.
As Obama asked " every member of Congress and every member of the global community" on Saturday:
"What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What's the purpose of the international system that we've built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world's people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?"
Editor's note: The New York Times has published a story on the history of chemical weapons — "A Weapon Seen as Too Horrible, Even in War" — which we highly recommend.
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