ISIS Is Using Chemical Weapons Against the Kurds. Why Won’t the U.S. Help?
With ISIS launching chemical attacks, Kurdish leaders in Iraq have issued an appeal to the West for gas masks. But they are still waiting for the gear.
After Islamic State militants fired mortars this week at Kurdish military posts in northern Iraq, the Peshmerga fighters complained of nausea, vomiting, and a burning sensation in their eyes. Their symptoms reflected telltale reactions to sulfur mustard gas, a blistering agent that the Islamic State has been employing with increasing and alarming frequency on the battlefield.
The rise in chemical attacks by the Islamic State has prompted the Kurdish regional government to issue an urgent request to Washington and other Western capitals for thousands of gas masks. But Erbil is still waiting for most of the protective masks to arrive.
As America’s most effective ally in the campaign against the Islamic State group, Kurdish officials say privately they are puzzled by the delay, especially given the Kurdish people’s tragic experience as victims of chemical weapons.
On March 16, 1988, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s military targeted the Kurdish town of Halabja near the Iranian border with the deadly nerve agent sarin and mustard gas, killing about 5,000 people and injuring thousands more. It remains the single worst chemical weapons attack on a civilian population in history.
Over the past year, Kurds have become reaquainted with the acrid smell of mustard gas. Hundreds of Kurdish troops and civilians have been injured in chemical attacks by the Islamic State and one 3-year-old child was killed in Taza in March, according to regional authorities.
Kurdish leaders and military officers say they need tens of thousands of gas masks for the 65,000 troops that are deployed in the fight against the Islamic State. So far, the Kurdish forces have 6,000 gas masks, including about 4,000 from the United States for two brigades being trained by American military advisers, said Brig. Gen. Hazhar Ismail of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
But the United States has promised an additional 5,000 masks and it’s not clear when those will be delivered, the general told Foreign Policy in an email.
Kurdish leaders believe the threat is mounting, especially as the U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi government draws up plans for a crucial offensive this year to recapture the city of Mosul, where they fear the Islamic State could be prepared to launch larger-scale chemical weapons attacks.
“We are very concerned about ISIS using chemical weapons,” Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the representative for the Kurdish Regional Government in Washington, told Foreign Policy.
“They’re using them with increasing frequency, and increasing sophistication,” she said. The rising number of attacks represents “a clear warning that they intend to use them in the fight to liberate Mosul.”
The Kurdistan regional government’s deputy prime minister, Qubad Talabani, led a delegation to Washington last week and raised the issue in talks with Pentagon and State Department officials.
“We have been asking for the gas masks for some time,” Rahman said.
But she said it was not a case of Kurdish requests being ignored: “The United States is definitely listening and very much engaging with us on all these issues.”
The pending request for gas masks has reinforced concerns for some U.S. lawmakers that Washington needs to be doing more to help the Kurds, and to ship weapons and other aid directly to the Kurdish region instead of through the central government in Baghdad, which is wracked by political instability that threatens the future of the American-backed prime minister, Haider al-Abadi.
“Even as the Peshmerga have successfully fought, retaken, and hold the most territory from ISIS, their ground forces remain woefully under-equipped,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) told FP.
“Specifically, the lack of chemical protective equipment, given the history of chemical weapons attacks against the Kurds and ISIS now using those weapons, is deeply concerning.”
Officials in President Barack Obama’s administration said they were not sure how many gas masks were supposed to be provided to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) or why the delivery had been delayed for months.
The Pentagon said it has supplied the Kurds with 4,000 gas masks to the brigades it was training. “We are in discussions with the KRG on any additional needs they may have,” spokesman Peter Cook told FP.
The Kurdish authorities are asking for donated equipment because plunging oil prices and an influx of refugees have created a budget deficit crisis of about $100 million a month for the regional government. Responding to an appeal from Kurdish leaders, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced this week that Washington would provide $415 million to help the Kurds cover the costs of military operations and to feed and pay its Peshmerga soldiers whose salaries are three months in arrears. But it was unclear if the assistance could cover the costs of gas masks.
The Islamic State has resorted to chemical weapons as it has come under mounting pressure on the battlefield, losing control of about 40 percent of its territory in Iraq, suffering damage to its oil smuggling operations, and having a number of senior figures captured or killed by U.S. forces. This month Iraqi forces backed by U.S. warplanes forced the Islamic State out of the city of Hit.
In its chemical weapons assaults with mortars and rockets, the group has used mustard gas, a yellowish vapor that can form potentially lethal blisters on the skin and lungs, and chlorine, another chemical that induces choking. The international body that oversees the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), helped the Iraqi government confirm that mustard gas has been used in some previous attacks in northern Iraq and has offered to help Baghdad document and verify the latest chemical assaults.
“The OPCW has taken serious note of these disturbing reports against the background of confirmed use of chemical weapons in Iraq. Any use of chemical weapons is abhorrent and a violation of universally accepted international norms,” the organization’s director-general, Ambassador Ahmet Üzümc, said in a statement last month.
Although outside governments, rights organizations, and the OPCW have closely monitored reports of chemical weapons attacks and voiced concern, U.S. and Western officials have not heavily focused on the issue in public statements.
“It’s not a high threat. We’re not, frankly, losing too much sleep over it,” Col. Steven Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, told reporters last month when asked about the mustard gas attacks.
The chemical weapons assaults, which have injured significant numbers of Peshmerga troops but not proved lethal so far, have been overshadowed by other atrocities and barbaric massacres committed by the Islamic State that have produced high death tolls and grisly video clips.
“Burning a pilot inside a cage. That leaves an image. But if somebody has blistered and reddened skin, it just doesn’t have the same psychological effect,” said John Gilbert, a retired U.S. Air Force military intelligence officer and a chemical weapons expert with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
Unlike some governments, such as the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic State group makes no effort to conceal its war crimes and cannot be coerced into halting the use of chemical weapons through the threat of sanctions or military action, Gilbert said.
Since the 1988 massacre at Halabja, the most significant chemical weapons attack against civilians was carried out by Assad’s forces in a suburb of Damascus in August 2013, when hundreds of civilians were killed in an assault using rockets filled with sarin. Afterward, the Assad regime, seeking to avert possible U.S. military intervention, agreed to have its stockpile of chemical weapons removed under international supervision.
However, Syrian regime forces have continued to launch attacks against rebels using chlorine, a toxic industrial gas, which was not included on a list of chemical weapons it submitted for removal.
The latest chemical attack by the Islamic State was carried out on Tuesday in Makhmour, where Iraqi and Kurdish troops are gathering before an eventual offensive on Mosul, the country’s second-largest city. The group appears to have concentrated a number of mustard gas attacks on Makhmour, perhaps in a bid to spread terror among the Kurdish and Iraqi fighters there. To support local forces with artillery fire, the U.S. military recently set up a base in the area with 200 Marines. An Islamic State rocket attack last month killed one of the Marines stationed there.
Despite concerns about the chemical attacks and shortage of protective masks, homemade bombs from the Islamic State have caused most of the casualties among Kurdish forces in the war. And the chemicals being deployed by the Islamic State have not included lethal nerve agents such as sarin or VX.
The first confirmation that the Islamic State was using mustard gas on the battlefield came in August 2015, based on lab tests of samples taken from 35 Kurdish fighters.
In February, after a six-month period of relative quiet, the Islamic State launched three separate chemical weapons attacks on Kurdish forces in the area around Sinjar, which had been recaptured from the Islamic State the previous November. On Feb. 11, a barrage of mortars injured more than 150 fighters, according to the Peshmerga. On Feb. 25, more than a dozen rockets armed with chemicals — suspected to be chlorine in this case — induced nausea and vomiting in nearly 200 fighters and civilians. A third attack occurred two days later.
The extremists kept up the attacks into the next month, causing three civilians to be hospitalized on March 2 in Sinjar and injuring a dozen on March 3 at a strategic juncture north of Mosul. Days later, the Islamic State used rockets to disperse a haze of mustard gas over a third Iraqi village, injuring as many as 670 civilians, according to Peshmerga spokesman Gen. Ismail.
Experts believe the Islamic State is able to make the mustard gas in Mosul, using precursors available from captured oil facilities. But U.S. officials say the group’s chemical weapons ambitions suffered a serious blow when American special operations forces captured Sleiman Daoud al-Afari in a village near Mosul in February. Afari was a chemical and biological weapons expert in Saddam Hussein’s regime and believed to be the mastermind behind the Islamic State group’s chemical weapons production.
U.S. officials have gained insights into the chemical program through interrogations of Afari, who explained how the mustard was weaponized for artillery shells. The intelligence collected reportedly led to airstrikes against a production facility and a unit related to the program.
Although mustard gas can be lethal, the weapon has caused a relatively small percentage of battlefield deaths since it was introduced in World War I. The gas can kill victims who are near a shell or mortar round when it explodes, as the mustard can cause choking or damage lung tissue. And research from previous wars, including the Iran-Iraq war, has shown that injuries from mustard gas can last a lifetime.
But the destructive effect of the mustard gas and chlorine pales in comparison with its enduring psychological impact, said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former British army officer and chemical weapons specialist who has urged supplying the Kurds with gas masks.
“It is the fear of chemical weapons that is the real killer, rather than the toxicity of the agents,” he wrote in a commentary in the Daily Telegraph.
The World War I poet Wilfred Owen famously described the horrific sight of a fellow soldier writhing from the effects of mustard gas in Dulce et Decorum Est:
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
FP‘s Henry Johnson contributed to this article.
Photo credit: CHRIS HONDROS/Getty Images
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