Bad chemistry: ISIS and mustard agents

By Gabrielle Tarini | October 9, 2015

Two years after the dismantlement of Syria’s declared chemical weapons arsenal, chemical warfare continues in the Middle East, attended by little public outcry.

US officials have identified at least four occasions in the last two months when the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has used mustard agents on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. While early claims by US officials suggested that ISIS militants obtained the deadly chemicals from caches in Syria, officials now believe the group has developed the capacity to manufacture its own mustard on a small scale.

Chemical weapons have a decades-long history in the Middle East, a region that has seen their widest and most recent use. Leaders like Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad have viewed them as highly effective battlefield weapons that could be used to generate tactical and even strategic gains. ISIS’s actions are a continuation of established security patterns.

Hussein’s use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War, in the 1980s, created a number of dangerous precedents relevant to the current situation. The failure of Iraq’s attacks to overwhelm Iranian defenses early in the war fueled a perceived need for chemical weapons. Because Iraq did not initially possess huge chemical weapons stores, it first employed chemical agents, namely the riot-control agent known as tear gas, in an effort to offset the Iranian human-wave attacks that overwhelmed Iraqi defenses and demoralized troops.

As the war dragged on, chemical weapons went from a defensive last resort used to prevent a decisive Iranian breakthrough to a trump card critical in the mounting of key offensives. The scope and size of Iraqi chemical attacks increased, the agents became deadlier, and, most crucially, chemical weapons began to be used to support offensive attacks. The largest and most notorious chemical attack was launched in what proved to be one of the final battles of the war, in March 1988, when Iraqi forces bombarded the town of Halabja with various chemical agents. The use of chemical weapons in Halabja, along with the threat of chemically tipped Scuds, brought Iran to its knees, and signaled Iraq’s determination to force a negotiated settlement.

Some regional observers drew the conclusion that chemical weapons could indeed have a strategic impact on the outcome of a conflict: Hussein had successfully staved off what initially looked like an all but certain Iranian victory and emerged with the backing of the international community.

Bashar al-Assad appears to have made a similar calculation when he began using chemical weapons during the Syrian civil war. Assad’s regime was on the verge of defeat when it hit Ghouta, a Damascus suburb, with the nerve agent sarin in August 2013, the largest known use of chemical weapons by the regime. Assad had been fighting the opposition for 18 months using conventional bombs and guns, with little success. Analysts such as Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer of the British military’s Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Regiment and NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion, have argued that Assad believed that the use of chemical weapons could serve as an effective last-ditch effort to keep the rebels from encroaching on his headquarters in Damascus, the capital. Today, two years after Assad agreed to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, there is still evidence that his government is dropping barrel bombs containing chlorine on insurgent-held areas.

ISIS’s recent use of chemical agents fits with the historical pattern established by Hussein and Assad. The militant group certainly sees itself as a state and behaves like one—administering territory, levying taxes, and managing large numbers of fighters across vast amounts of land. The group’s increasing use of mustard agent points to a belief that chemical weapons are an important tactical asset on the battlefield.

ISIS’s alleged chemical attacks in Marea in August are a good example of this strategy. Located in northern Syria, Marea is a key town along the border with Turkey, close to a vital supply route for the Syrian rebels. Capturing Marea would make ISIS well-placed to control the nearby Bab al-Salaama border crossing with Turkey, providing it access to more supplies, weapons, and foreign recruits. The Syrian American Medical Society reported that the assault on Marea involved more than 50 shells centered on civilian areas. After the attack, the group’s field hospital received more than 50 patients, 23 of whom showed symptoms of chemical exposure. The report was corroborated by local rebel forces, who claimed the shells had been fired from an ISIS-controlled village. The Marea attack reflects the established line of thinking: When conventional weapons fail, chemical weapons may make the difference.

This troubling pattern raises concerns about the erosion of fairly solid international norms surrounding chemical weapons use. Despite an enormously ambitious and exceedingly complex international effort to rid Syria of its chemical stockpile (and one that, despite tensions and poor relations, brought the US and Russia together), it appears that chemical warfare is still alive and well in Syria and Iraq, because of an enduring belief among regional actors that chemical weapons will get the job done. 

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