Now, as President Obama confronts enormous difficulties in rallying a reluctant Congress and a skeptical world to punish the Syrian government with a military strike over what is said to be its apparent use of deadly nerve agents last month, he appears to be facing a similar challenge to the one that allowed the Assads to accumulate their huge stockpile. While countries around the world condemned Syria for adding to its arsenal as most nations were eliminating their own, few challenged the buildup, and some were eager to profit from it.
“It was frustrating,” Juan C. Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism in the George W. Bush administration, recalled Friday.
“People tried. There were always other understandably urgent priorities — Iran’s nuclear program, North Korea,” said Mr. Zarate, who has written a book about American efforts to crack down on illegal financing for terrorist groups and states including Syria, Iran and North Korea. “It was an issue that was always there, but never rose to the top of the world’s agenda.”
Proliferation experts said President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his father before him, former President Hafez al-Assad, were greatly helped in their chemical weapons ambitions by a basic underlying fact: often innocuous, legally exportable materials are also the precursors to manufacturing deadly chemical weapons.
Soon after Mr. Obama came to office, newly installed officials grew increasingly alarmed by the ease with which Mr. Assad was using a network of front companies to import the precursors needed to make VX and sarin, deadly chemical poisons that are internationally banned, according to leaked diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks, the antisecrecy group.