The alleged use of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fits in with a pattern of increasing small-scale tactical usages of chemical weapons in both Syria and Iraq.
Despite the furore following the use of chemical munitions by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Ghouta in 2013, the use of chemical munitions by ISIL points to a worrying new trend in which the use of prohibited weapons is increasingly becoming the norm.
A growing amount of evidence is emerging that ISIL has increasingly begun to use chemical weapons against forces fighting them in both Iraq and Syria.
Recent reports confirmed that government investigations by the US and Germany show the potential use of mustard gas against Kurdish forces in the Iraqi town of Makhmour on August 14 and against Syrian YPG forces last month around the town of Hassakeh.
In truth, reports of attempted chemical attacks by ISIL are nothing new. Peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) claimed that on January 23 a car bomb attack on the road between Mosul and the Syrian border contained noticeable amounts of chlorine, which caused severe breathing difficulties for Peshmerga troops.
Anecdotal reports from Peshmerga front lines have noted for some months that the remains of chlorine storage tanks have been found in vehicle borne suicide bombs used by ISIL. Syrian Kurds have also made claims back as far as July 2014 that “some kind of chemical weapon” appears to have been used in attacks on the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobane.
Dark, yellow liquid
Through a combination of ignorance and poor placement of chemical munitions next to explosives, the heat and force of the explosions in most of the car bombs have been enough to render the chemicals inert or destroyed completely.
But the latest attacks point to the adaption of Katyusha missiles and mortars that are virtually impossible to intercept with the Peshmerga’s current array of weaponry, and can deliver enough chlorine and mustard gas to cause serious difficulties to those serving on the frontlines. The KRG also claim that on June 21 and 22, a mortar was fired into an area southwest of Mosul dam, which independent reports confirm contained a dark, yellow liquid that emitted a chlorine-type odour.
Remnants of the warheads found suggest that ISIL has been able modify them to carry liquid within the casing so as to deliver chemical munitions with medium accuracy...
Remnants of the warheads found suggest that ISIL has been able modify them to carry liquid within the casing so as to deliver chemical munitions with medium accuracy, and with relative security to those tasked with handling them.
There appears to be no evidence as of yet that ISIL has worked out how to configure bursting charges into its weapons, which would more effectively ensure their dispersion into the air. So the munitions and vehicle suicide bombs that ISIL uses seem to have relatively low effect on the surrounding area, and mass casualties have, thankfully, been avoided.
Equally fortunate, there is no evidence to suggest that ISIL has been able to either handle or deliver more complex chemical munitions such binary warheads, which are the preferred delivery method for nerve agents such as Sarin.
Handling, storage, and delivery of these highly lethal weapons is extremely hazardous and difficult, and creating the compounds in the right volumes even more so. As of yet, ISIL does not display any technical excellence in this area, despite its access to university facilities in Mosul.
‘Some form of chemical weapons’
US authorities have now confirmed they are investigating whether ISIL fighters have launched chemical munitions at Syrian Kurdish forces – or, People’s Protection Units (YPG) – in the area of Hassakeh and just south of Tel Brak. This confirms initial reports released on June 28 and July 13 compiled by Sarhan Research and Conflict Armament Research that some form of chemical munitions were used by ISIL in at least 24 separate incidents.
Although all the documented cases point to a relatively crude methods for delivery, the problem is that war by its very nature is innovative; militias and armies learn and adapt. And if the verification of these chemical weapons claims, particularly, the allegations of mustard gas, then this sets extremely worrying precedents for the escalation of use and the improvement of technologies for more accurate delivery and more widespread dispersal.
In Syria, to date, the vast majority of documented, open source evidence still points to the Assad regime using small scale chemical munitions along a variety of front lines.
Available open source information and YouTube documentation of alleged usage of chemical weapon attacks point to 59 incidents, of which 58 are attributed to the regime and only one so far to anti-Assad rebels. Although a further 24 attacks now appear to be conclusively the work of ISIL.
Despite its promises to disband its chemical weapons stocks, particularly of nerve agents, the Syrian Arab Army appears to have not learned its lesson from previous misdemeanours. The favoured method for the regime is the barrel bomb, which, because ISIL possesses no air capability, leads to a sensible conclusion that indisputable evidence of barrel bombs delivering chemical munitions emanate from the regime side.
It is important to remember that the politics that swirl around the Syrian war must not get in the way of the facts. While the evidence pointing towards ISIL’s use of chemical weapons is deeply troubling, any attempt by the regime and its backers to whitewash their own record by tarring and feathering ISIL should be completely dismissed as nothing more than a diversionary tactic.
Any attempt by the regime and its backers to whitewash their own record by tarring and feathering ISIL should be completely dismissed...
It is currently unknown whether ISIL acquired mustard gas through indigenous production, but it is highly unlikely to be able possess the technical capability with which to produce it in large volumes.
If ISIL does continue to use mustard gas in the future, it would need to capture the materials from militaries with advanced state backed procurement chains and research capacity.
If it is the case that ISIL has acquired mustard gas as a result of improper storage and disposal of chemical weapons stocks by the Syrian regime, then this is an extremely serious violation of the 2013 agreement, and one that may have grave consequences for regional security in the coming months.
It is right not to lose sight of the violence and savagery of conventional weapons (including ISIL’s famed weapon – the kitchen knife), but the accusations of chemical munitions use against ISIL and the Assad regime need to be taken very seriously.
Military advantage through the use of chemical weapons is minimal at best; they kill indiscriminately and are designed to terrify populations into leaving.
If ISIL has decided this is its modus operandi from now on, then coalition forces need to up their game in identifying, tracking and destroying these munitions before they can ever be used.
Michael Stephens is a research fellow for Middle East studies and head of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in Qatar.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.