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Red Line Redux
ISIS Hit Kurds With Chemical Weapons

ISIS fighters in Iraq used chemical weapons, likely a mustard agent, on Kurdish forces this week, according to German and U.S. officials. The American officials said that ISIS probably had gotten the mustard agent in Syria. The Syrian regime declared large quantities of it in 2013, and ISIS has captured territory near the regime’s storage sites for its chemical weapons. International inspectors hadn’t been able to confirm the regime’s claim that it had burned all of its mustard stockpiles, and U.S. intelligence agencies suspect that the regime squirreled some away instead of destroying it.

ISIS has reportedly used chlorine gas in Iraq before, though the U.S. has no evidence that it possesses either sarin or VX, far deadlier agents that the Assad regime also stockpiled. American officials say that Kurdish, Iraqi, and moderate Syrian forces fighting ISIS may need special equipment and training to combat the use of chemical weapons if the gas becomes part of ISIS’ standard repertoire, though ISIS is not thought to have very much mustard agent on hand as of now. Officials also warn that the Assad regime, which is losing ground and possibly nearing collapse, could use whatever chemical weapons it has held in reserve to defend its remaining positions.

If you’re surprised by the new allegations, our own Adam Garfinkle, who has been writing since 2013 on the sham deal over the Syrian weapon stockpile, is an excellent read on the background to this story:

On several occasions the President and his Secretary of State lauded the achievements of the chemical weapons deal with Syria, via Russia. It suited them to do so because it has tended to erase, or at least to blur, the unnerving memory of the infamous “non-strike” event in Syria. It allows the narrative that the threat to use force, even in “an incredibly small” way, to recall Kerry’s madcap remark at the time, resulted in a diplomatic achievement via arms control with real security policy benefits. It did not. It resulted in the U.S. government’s backing down on account of being successfully lied to and hoodwinked by a small cabal of weaker parties; the only security policy benefits accrued to our enemies.

And, then, of course, there’s the real problem that Garfinkle pointed out:

Worse, it arguably led all three major revisionist powers—Iran, Russia, and China—to ratchet up their risk-taking.

The taboo on chemical weapons has been seared into western thought since the First World War, preserved through everything from pictures to poetry and enshrined in the consensus against the forbidden triad of WMDs: nuclear, chemical, biological. But in the Syrian Civil War, the U.S. (and European) will to stop the use of chemical weapons has been proven to lie below the threshold for meaningful action: the Assad regime—and, now, its enemies—have felt free to use the weapons as they choose. As Garfinkle indicates, it’s rational to wonder what sort of precedent this will set for the region—particularly if the U.S. continues to stay on the sidelines as the Syrian conflict reaches its endgame and things, potentially, get even worse.

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  • Fat_Man

    And they won’t use nuclear weapons either.

  • rheddles

    The taboo on chemical weapons has been seared into western thought since the First World War

    Had the atomic bombs not brought Japan to surrender, we would have used poison gas on their civilian populace.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Debatable, at best. There is no doubt that the Japanese were considering using it on OUR troops, and biological weapons were on their agenda as well however.
      But really…why would we have bothered? Given the massive firepower advantage that we already enjoyed, what is to be gained by use of chemicals, particularly against the civilian population? Napalm and high explosives would have accomplished the grisly tasks easily enough.

      • rheddles

        Check it out:

        Also check out Okinawa. The invasion of Japan was going to be a killing field of extraordinary proportions.

        • f1b0nacc1

          I read that article a long, long time ago, and found it to be unconvincing. The problem was that we ALSO suggested that we were going to drop nukes behind the landing beaches…my point being that at that stage in the planning virtually every option was being considered. The document that you are quoting was in fact an exploratory discussion of what would happen IF we decided to use chemicals, not a plan for using them.
          As for the potential casualties involved in any invasion of Japan, this is hardly news….though there is little reason to believe that chemicals would have reduced that. Chemicals were used quite promiscuously during WWI, and they did little to reduce the casualties in almost exactly the same sort of warfare that we would have been discussing here. There is a reason that none of the combatants in WWII (including the Nazis) used chemicals….they simply aren’t all that useful. Worse still, given that the US was going to be the attacking force, chemical use would have tended to increase casualties for our own troops, whether or not it helped us break through…

    • Tom

      For that matter, the only reason they weren’t deployed in Europe in WWII was that everyone had them and indicated that massive retaliation would be in the offing if they were ever used.

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