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.