As ISIS retreats, fears of chemical attacks grow

Sunday 09/10/2016

Beirut - As the Syrian war reaches a crescendo of indis­criminate bombing, starvation sieges and heavy ground fighting, there are growing concerns that the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Russian-backed Damascus regime could unleash deadly attacks with chemical weapons.

The most immediate concern is that ISIS will employ chlorine and mustard gas, crude versions of which they are reportedly produc­ing in neighbouring Iraq, to coun­ter a long-anticipated offensive by the Baghdad government to recon­quer Mosul. The northern Iraqi city was stormed by ISIS in June 2014 and the group’s leader Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi proclaimed the caliphate there soon after.

Amid the rise of fanatical jihad­ist groups such as ISIS, the abiding Western nightmare has been that they would one day unleash chem­ical or biological attacks on major cities in the Middle East as well as in Europe and the United States.

These fears have grown amid a series of chemical weapons attacks carried out by President Bashar As­sad’s regime and ISIS in Syria and Iraq in recent weeks as state forces, supported by the United States, Russia, Iran and the Arab Gulf monarchies, have steadily driven the jihadists out of territory they seized in their 2014 blitzkrieg.

Pentagon spokesman US Navy Captain Jeff Davis said on Sep­tember 26th the ISIS threat to turn Mosul into “hell on earth” could include the use of chemical weap­ons. “This is real,” Davis declared. “They’re dead set on it.”

Four days earlier, Colonel Ham­ish de Bretton-Gordon, former commander of the British mili­tary’s Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regi­ment, disclosed that intelligence reports say ISIS has planted ex­plosives in a major chemical plant at Mishraq, 20km south of Mosul. These would be detonated if US-backed Iraqi forces threatened the jihadist stronghold.

De Bretton-Gordon, recently in Iraq where he trained Kurdish forc­es near Mosul on how to counter chemical weapons attacks, warned that Mishraq, one of Iraq’s largest chemical plants, which produces some 21,000 tonnes of sulphur di­oxide a day, is packed with thou­sands of tonnes of sulphur and hy­drogen sulphide.

He calculated that if detonated, the chemicals would release hun­dreds of tonnes of sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide, creating a toxic cloud with a radius of 10-17 km.

In 2003, a month-long fire at the plant released an estimated 600,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the air, the largest recorded man-made release of the toxic gas. It killed all vegetation within sever­al kilometres and left hundreds of people with respiratory problems.

The plant is only 10km north of Qayyarah airbase, where several hundred US troops are deployed with Iraqi forces who captured it from ISIS in July. Blowing up the plant during an offensive could ef­fectively disrupt military opera­tions, at least for a time.

The US global security consul­tancy Stratfor noted that Qayyarah, which will be critical to the Mosul offensive, was heavily sabotaged by the retreating ISIS fighters in a bid to slow down the impending push on their most prized posses­sion.

The jihadists also set fire to near­by oil fields, smothering the area in a cloud of black smoke to slow down the Iraqi military advance.

Stratfor observed that this tactic — used, incidentally, by Saddam Hussein on a much grander scale in the Iraqi retreat from Kuwait in 1991 — “could be a chilling sign of what lies in store for Iraq. As the Is­lamic State loses ground, it is mak­ing a concerted effort to ensure its opponents cannot use the land or resources it leaves behind”.

De Bretton-Gordon said ISIS has chemical weapons plants in Mosul where it is manufacturing mustard gas. “They have all the precursors at hand from the oil industry and all the experts at hand to do it,” he said.

He said ISIS militants were “mak­ing their own mustard gas but I also believe they have access to some of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s undeclared stockpile, which could be as much as 100 tonnes”.

The Organisation for the Prohibi­tion of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded in October 2015 that ISIS used mustard gas in Iraq in 2014, the first known use of chemi­cal weapons there since Saddam was toppled in the US invasion of March 2003.

Saddam used chemical weapons against Iranian forces in the 1980- 88 Gulf war, as well as against Iraq’s Kurds, who waged a separatist war against his regime.

In the most horrific of those at­tacks, up to 5,000 men, women and children died on March 16th, 1988, when Saddam’s warplanes dropped chemical and nerve agents, including sarin and possi­bly cyanide, on the eastern Kurdish town of Halabja.

It remains the single worst chem­ical weapons attack on a civilian population.

Syria was supposed to be free of chemical weapons in June 2014 af­ter the Damascus regime handed over more than 1,180 tonnes of de­clared toxic agents and precursor chemicals to the Germany-based OPCW under a Russian-brokered agreement.

That intervention by Moscow on Assad’s behalf averted threatened US air strikes in retaliation on the regime for an August 21st, 2013, sa­rin gas attack that killed more than 1,400 people in a rebel stronghold on the edge of Damascus.

But in recent months US and other officials say there has been growing evidence that the regime did not surrender all its chemical stocks and has been using chlorine gas in artillery and mortar shells as well as in rockets.

There are also suspicions that it may also have retained the pre­cursors needed to produce nerve agents such as sarin or VX that are infinitely more deadly than chlo­rine.

Jihadists have been seeking to develop such weapons since Osa­ma bin Laden set up al-Qaeda in the 1990s but never succeeded, in part because US forces and their al­lies eliminated key figures in that endeavour.

It is also possible that bin Lad­en had qualms about using such nightmare weapons against fellow Muslims that would alienate the jihadist organisation in the Islamic world.

But the emergence of ISIS in Iraq, with its access to virtually unlim­ited funds and experts who worked in Saddam’s secret chemical weap­ons programme before the US inva­sion in 2003, changed that.

US intelligence has long suspect­ed that ISIS has laboratories and production facilities. In February, the United States apparently ob­tained hard information confirm­ing that.

US special forces captured the purported head of the ISIS’s chemi­cal weapons programme, identified as an Iraqi named Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, in Badoosh, north-west of Mosul. That was seen as a break­through in the drive to cripple ji­hadist efforts to develop chemical and biological weapons capable of inflicting mass casualties.