ISIL’s campaign may be going chemical – why no international outcry?

Michelle Bentley | (The Conversation) | – –

Evidence is mounting that [so-called] Islamic State (IS) [group] is using chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria – and yet this egregious crime, which once used to be a “red line” for the rest of the world, has yet to provoke a proportionate response.

One the most compelling accusations so far is a recent report that the terrorist group used mustard gas in Marea, a Syrian town near Aleppo. No-one was killed, but around 30 people were treated for severe chemical injuries. One of the victims was a five-day-old baby.

The United Nations is currently setting up an investigation into the attack, but given the seriousness of what may be a full-on chemical campaign, it all feels like too little, too late.

Upping the ante

This is far from the first allegation that IS has used chemical weapons. In July 2014, there were reports of a chemical attack against Kurdish forces in Kobanê, Syria. IS is believed to have stolen the chlorine that was used in the strike from the Muthanna chemical facility near Baghdad in Iraq.

Then, in October 2014, Iraqi doctors and police officers investigated claims that IS used chlorine as a weapon in Dhuluiya, a town north of Baghdad. Witnesses reported a yellow smoke at the scene that made them faint and vomit. Experts pointed to water treatment plants in areas now under IS control that could provide a ready supply of chlorine.

In March 2015, Kurdish authorities claimed IS had used chemical weapons against peshmerga fighters outside the Iraqi city of Mosul. They showed a video of the attack. A truck billowing white smoke is seen being driven towards the Kurdish troops, which then explodes. The smoke makes the fighters extremely sick – all symptoms of chemical exposure.

In June 2015, poison gas was used in and around the Syrian city of Hasaka. Investigators could not confirm what chemical was used, but it was probably some type of agricultural agent. Around the same time, Saharan Research and Conflict Armament Research released a report stating that IS had used chemical munitions on 24 separate incidents in Syria.

IS then carried out a mustard gas strike in the Iraqi town of Makhmour in August 2015. The US has confirmed the attack. Investigations believe that the weapons used originated in Syria.

Two years ago, Bashar al-Assad agreed with the US and Russia to give up his chemical weapons stockpiles, which would then be destroyed. But a report has now found a massive gap between the volume of weapons declared and the ones that were actually eliminated, and it’s thought IS has got hold of at least some these unaccounted-for stockpiles. (Libya has also been suggested as a possible source.)

The details of the attacks may be murky, but the overall picture is clear: IS may well be starting to incorporate chemical warfare into its strategy. The fighting in Iraq and Syria has given the group numerous opportunities to get hold of these weapons and, if the allegations and evidence that have been gathered so far turn out to be accurate, it is now using them regularly.

So far, the unconfirmed attacks have been relatively small and claimed relatively few casualties – though if the group has got hold of major stockpiles, that could soon change.

End of the red line

Given all historical and legal precedent, you might expect IS’s apparent chemical attacks to be a major issue. Assad’s use of these weapons was enough for the US to threaten airstrikes against Syria. Surely then the spread of chemical arms to IS would be an important concern.

But the allegations against IS haven’t changed anything. No country has shown any serious interest in dealing with the IS-specific chemical issue head on, let alone come up with a response. And they won’t.

Whatever worthy pronouncements are made about how terrible chemical weapons are, we’ve yet to see any real action. Weapons of mass destruction may have been a good enough pretext for George W. Bush and Tony Blair, but given the lessons of Iraq and the chaos of the IS conflict, this isn’t the case now.

The world’s efforts to address the Assad regime’s chemical attacks, which spurred a diplomatic push to peacefully dismantle the stockpile, turned out to be shortlived. Assad continues to use chlorine to this day, and the US has not done anything to stop it. This is because Obama does not actually want to be involved, chemical weapons or not.

The same applies to IS. Where’s the incentive for the US to respond? Obama is far from keen to put “boots on the ground” in Syria or Iraq – and taking the alleged chemical attacks as seriously as he did the Assad stockpile only increases the pressure on him to intervene. No wonder he doesn’t want to talk about what’s happening.

As a result, a rash of likely chemical attacks appears to be being swept under the carpet. Unless there’s a “major” incident (whatever that would be) these will likely be ignored.

This is hypocritical at best. Whether we believe chemical weapons should be treated as distinct or not, having an inconsistent policy will not help bring an end to the conflicts in Syria or Iraq.

The Conversation

Michelle Bentley, Lecturer in International Relations, Royal Holloway

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


CBS News: “ISIS militants may have used chemical weapons against Kurds”

10 Responses

  1. marlyn

    because nobody will believe anyone who says there are chemical weapons? cry wolf syndrome. [yes even if there’s evidence this time]

  2. The ‘red line’ was for the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, IIRC, not ISIS which is already behind the ‘red line’.

    It would be better if the nations in that region were the ones who were suppressing ISIS. I’ve read some reports that they’re fueling the movement with money and weapons though. I’m not sure their neighbours want them ‘contained’ at all. Whatever their governments actually say.

  3. zafar khan

    @stroutcw Because they are fully supported by the West otherwise where would they acquire knowhow and technology to develop weapons

    • That’s an ironically racist statement. The first chemical weapons were merely canisters of poison vapors released on the Western Front in 1915 in the hope that the wind would blow them the right direction. Hardly beyond the capability of a non-Western person. Hardly requiring the backing of a government. Hell, in the name of economic prosperity, enterprises all over the world poison their own citizens all the time.

  4. Where are announcements on red lines?? ISIS is an existential threat to minorities in the middle east the same way as the Nazi Germany was to the Jews and the Roma of Europe.
    Why isnt there more outrage?

    When does the world realize that the US and Europe needs to work with Russia and Iran along with Assad to neutralize this scourge from earth. Assad’s forces may have committed atrocities but they pale in comparison with the sheer barbarism of the savages of ISIS.

    Where is the sense of proportion and propriety?

    • I agree. I think the key disgrace of the Obama Administration was insisting on Assad’s ouster as early as 2011. Why didn’t the US compromise with Russia in calling for a cease-fire and political negotiations? THE priority was to stop the carnage and pave the way for political negotiations. The secular opposition to Assad was not strong enough to overthrow him, the extremists filled a military vacuum. In August, 2011, 2300 Syrians had been killed by the war. There was a chance to get at least a cease-fire. Look at it now. Clinton got red-in-the-face calling for Assad to leave. For what?

      • Not a threat to the world, but to the people who get in its way. There are many small ethnicities in the Middle East with no armed force on their side. “The same way as Nazi Germany was to the Jews and the Roma” is a reasonable statement.

  5. @rbtl, I agree Obama administration’s insistence on Assad’s removal has been hugely counterproductive. I understand Obama’s reluctance in getting involved in yet another mideast conflict, but as POTUS you dont get have the luxury of completely disengaging from trouble spots around the world.

    Only the US can provide the leadership that is required to deal with such multi lateral and international conflicts with far reaching consequences.

    • “Only the US” is a statement we’re going to have to learn to stop saying. The world got by before the US, and it was just as ugly and violent as it was under the US hegemony. Russia and China will impose order on the places where it is profitable for them to pay decent wages to locals. Other Great Powers and regional powers will do the same. The unprofitable parts of the world will continue to live in anarchy and misery. Only a superpower is arrogant enough to attempt to force compliance from all the humans on Earth, even where it has no interest in their economic utility.

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