Analyst: 'A fantastic weapon of fear'
Syria isn't one of the 188 nations that have signed on to the Chemical Weapons Convention that prohibits the production, stockpiling and use of chemical and biological weapons. Fellow Middle Eastern nations having taken a similar stance, officially refusing to sign on until Israel signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Yet Syria has denied having such weapons, as well as using them during its ongoing civil war. (Damascus has accused rebels of using such weapons, though, including in an attack last month in the northern province of Aleppo that state media claimed killed 25 people.) It's also expressed concerns that its government might be falsely implicated if "terrorists" -- a term it uses to refer to rebel fighters -- employ such weapons.
"What raises concerns ... is our serious fear that some of the countries backing terrorism and terrorists might provide the armed terrorist groups with chemical weapons and claim that it was the Syrian government that used the weapons," the state-run news agency SANA reported.
Unlike nuclear weapons, chemical weapons are inexpensive to develop and stockpile.
This lends them a disproportionate importance for Syria and the region, analysts say.
"In the Middle East, chemical weapons have been seen as a possible counter to Israel's nuclear weapons," Susan B. Martin of the Department of War Studies at King's College London said in March.
Dina Esfandiary, a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said last month that Syria embraced a chemical weapons program as a way to bolster its strategic strength despite economic weaknesses, especially after Israel imposed a series of humiliating military defeats on the Arab world.
"The best way to operate asymmetrically was for Syria to have its chemical weapons program," she said.
According to Esfandiary, chemical weapons' utility is "quite limited," as they are more of a deterrent than a real battlefield or tactical weapon.
"If you shoot a missile at a population center, you can be fairly certain that anyone it hits will die," she said. "Chemical weapons use is not as clear-cut as that. It depends on topography, weather, how you deliver the chemical weapons, and you can't always be clear it will cause maximum casualty."
Their real power is in psychological, she said.
"It's a fantastic weapon of fear."