Kurdish forces report that Islamic State has used banned chemical weapons in an attack on Kurdish forces in Iraq, U.S. officials say. The reports claim that the chemical agent used was mustard gas, a compound that can cause blindness, respiratory problems, and severe blistering. The weapon has been banned under international law on the grounds that it causes excessive suffering.
It is thought by intelligence agencies that the weapons may have been sourced in Syria. The Assad regime has in the past admitted to holding a large stockpile of various chemical agents and had committed to a destruction program under a deal with President Obama’s administration. There were, however, continuing concerns over delays in the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles as well as accusations of hiding and preserving the means of production of banned chemical weapons.
Business Insider reported in June that the Assad regime was mounting chemical weapons labs on 18-wheeler trucks in order to hide weapons labs “in plain sight,” as well as failing to report numerous production sites. It was at one of these unreported sites that traces of the highly lethal chemical agent Sarin were found, as well as the biological weapon Ricin. Both of these agents are highly lethal and banned under international law.
U.S. officials are concerned that if the weapons were, in fact, sourced from remnants of Assad’s state production facilities in Syria, ISIS may very soon have access to even more banned chemical agents. It follows that if one banned stockpile has fallen into ISIS hands, any others that exist may form the basis of future chemical attacks.
ISIS has conducted chemical attacks in the past, using chlorine gas in a suicide truck bombing in Iraq in January, according to NBC News. The use of a banned chemical weapon, however, represents a new frontier in ISIS tactics and capabilities. Should ISIS have access to Syria’s poorly policed and frequently used, and therefore ready to deploy, stockpile of chemical weapons, a whole new threat dimension has been introduced into an already bloody, confused, and highly volatile theatre of conflict.
The chemical weapons stockpiles in question were meant to be destroyed as part of a deal to prevent U.S. airstrikes against the Assad regime. Following a suspected Sarin attack by the Assad regime in 2013, the U.S. government agreed to hold off on its promise to intervene in the case of chemical attack on the condition that Assad allow UN inspectors into the country to detect and destroy any chemical weapons stockpiles. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, this action proved impossible to implement in the midst of a destructive and fluid civil war, and signs of chemical weapons production and stockpiling continued to be found well after the last shipments of weapons were supposed to have been destroyed. It is these weapons that could fall into ISIS hands.
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