Here’s the inconvenient truth about Syria’s chemical weapons that Theresa May is hoping you won’t notice

Theresa May looking nervous
Emily Apple

As Theresa May bombs Syria, there’s an inconvenient truth behind Syria’s possession of chemical weapons that she’d like us to forget. UK companies provided chemicals to Syria. And former Conservative Party leader William Hague admitted it was “likely” that these chemicals were used to produce weapons.

The UK’s murky past

In the 1980s, UK companies sold chemicals including dimethyl phosphite, trimethyl phosphite, and hydrogen fluoride (through a third country) to Syria. Speaking to parliament when he was foreign secretary in 2014, Hague stated:

From the information we hold, we judge it likely that these chemical exports by UK companies were subsequently used by Syria in their programmes to produce nerve agents, including sarin.

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But it didn’t stop in the 1980s. UK companies were still exporting chemicals to Syria in 2012. Seven chemical export licences were reportedly issued between 2004 and 2012:

Former business secretary Vince Cable claimed he was:

confident that each application was properly assessed to determine end use and that the exports were for legitimate commercial purposes, namely cosmetics and health care products.

But Cable refused to publish the names of the companies involved in the exports. And he provided no further information to help verify his claims.

The 2012 licences were revoked in July 2012, after the tightening of EU sanctions, and the Business Department insisted that none of the chemicals had been shipped out.

Supporting arms dealers

The UK’s commitment to stopping arms sales to Syria seems, at best, murky. In 2003, when Syria was described as a “terrorist sponsoring state”, its government was invited to attend the Defence and Security Exhibition International (DSEI) arms fair in London.

And in 2013, Rostec – the Russian company that allegedly provided three quarters of all Syria’s weapons – was allowed to exhibit at DSEI. Oliver Sprague from Amnesty UK stated:

As the world abhors the catastrophe unfolding in Syria, it is astonishing that the British Government has allowed one of President Assad’s main weapon suppliers to showcase its wares on these shores.

Stop the arms trade

The UK is well known for fuelling conflict around the world. Currently, May’s government is facing legal action for arming Saudi Arabia.

According to the United Nations, at least 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Yemen and three million people have been displaced. UNICEF reports that more than 5,000 children have been killed or injured in Yemen since the conflict began in March 2015. Cholera and acute diarrhoea, meanwhile, have affected over a million people, and over 8 million people are at risk of starvation.

But this hasn’t stopped the government licensing $6.4bn of weapons since the start of the war in 2015.

As May releases the bombs, it seems she’d rather we forget this inconvenient truth. Because if we remember, we might start questioning. And we might start realising that the best way to end conflict in Syria (and elsewhere) is to ban the global arms trade. Otherwise, history will just keep repeating itself.

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