The Pentagon believes that on Wednesday August 13th, ISIS forces in northern Iraq used chemical weapons against Kurdish Peshmerga forces. If true, this will be the first indication that ISIS has obtained chemical weapons, something the U.S. government has feared for a while though had failed to make public. The use of chemical weapons in the battlefields of Iraq will no doubt seriously change the situation. With anti-ISIS forces unprepared to defend against chemical attacks, fear of the future use of such weapons will serve to limit morale further compounding an already negative situation due to the stalled counteroffensive.
The attack on Wednesday during a battle between Kurdish and ISIS forces reportedly left around 60 Peshmerga soldiers with symptoms akin to those received by mustard gas. Initially it was the German Federal Ministry of Defense that reported the possible use of chemical weapons as Peshmerga forces were suffering from blisters and throat problems; tell-tale signs of exposure to mustard gas. Germany has been engaged in northern Iraq in training and equipping Kurdish forces though they claim none of their advisers were present where the attack took place.
The attack occurred near the town of Makhmour, about 40 miles southwest of the major Kurdistan city of Erbil in northern Iraq. A spokesman for the German Federal Ministry of Defense said in a statement, “These were apparently chemical weapons. What it was exactly we don’t know.” Since then though U.S. and German officials have somewhat stepped back from initial claims that mustard gas was definitely used though they acknowledge something did occur.
The use of chemical weapons on the Kurds in Iraq brings back bad memories of their past use. Between 3,000 and 5,000 Kurds were killed in March 1988 when Iraqi forces attacked the city of Halabja which had recently been taken over by Iranian army and Kurdish forces. In that attack, it is believed a mix of mustard gas and nerve agents were utilized.
Source of the Chemical Weapons
Senior U.S. and German officials initially claimed that the chemical agent utilized by ISIS forces was mustard gas. It is most likely that such chemical weapons were acquired from Syrian stockpiles. In July 2012, the Assad regime in Syria officially admitted what the world had suspected for a long time, to having large stocks of chemical weapons ranging from mustard gas to nerve agents such as sarin.
While chemical weapon attacks purportedly occurred numerous times throughout the Syrian Civil War, the use of such weapons in an August 2013 attack in the suburbs of Damascus that killed over 1,000 was verified as true. Fearing repercussions in the form of Western military strikes, the Assad regime pushed for negotiations and by September an agreement was reached for the supervised dismantling and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.
While the majority of Syrian chemical weapons have been destroyed, questions have abounded as to if the Assad government fully declared all their stockpiles, either intentionally or by their own failure to maintain accurate records. True, in the aftermath of the 2003 overthrow of the Hussein regime in Iraq, outdated chemical weapon stores dating back well over a decade were discovered throughout the country. Their existence was not entirely due to subterfuge on the part of the Hussein government, but also a failure of the government to keep track of them.
In Syria, the same is feared; that some chemical weapons still exist either because they have not been entered in records and or due to the government secretly maintaining small stocks. The latter has been expressed by U.S. officials as a more likely possibility. Indeed it may also be possible that chemical weapons were acquired by ISIS from overrun Syrian military bases prior to the September decision to destroy stockpiles. Though if the latter proved to be true, one wonders why ISIS would utilize them, now when they have had numerous chances in the past.
Change in the Tactical Situation?
If the reported attack did see the use of chemical weapons it means that ISIS does have access to them. The real question is if they do, in what quantity do they have? So far ISIS has time and time again showed the world its true barbarity and so it is safe to assume that there is little that would prevent them from refraining from the using such weapons. On the other hand, if they have mustard gas, the one positive is that it has to be utilized in large quantities to be deadly, quantities which might not be available to ISIS.
Then the question becomes, how will this impact the tactical situation on the battlefield? While the Iraqi Army withered away in the opening campaign of the ISIS offensive starting in December 2013, Kurdish forces stood their ground. While Iraqi forces have regrouped and have put ISIS on the defensive, fear of chemical weapons attacks which Iraqi and Kurdish forces are not equipped to repel will no doubt create unease in the ranks. Already the July counteroffensive which there was high hope for has stalled while Kurdish forces have also recently come under fire from Turkish forces.
Already coalition airstrikes have so far failed to seriously degrade ISIS warfighting capabilities, much less dislodge them from towns they occupy. It is in the opinion of many that ground forces, not airpower will be the deciding factor in the campaign against ISIS. The problem though is to what degree is the resolve of Iraqi army and Peshmerga units especially when faced with the possibility if chemical weapon use against them?