On the morning of March 16, 1988, Iraqi war planes and artillery pounded the Kurdish town of Halabja in northern Iraq with mustard gas and the deadly nerve agent sarin.
Some 5,000 people – mainly women and children – died that day, and up to 12,000 have lost their lives since. The method was the same as the Ghouta gas attack in Damascus, on August 21, 2013, just over 25 years later.
In both instances a conventional pre-bombardment – to break windows and doors and to get people underground – was followed by chemical weapons.
Heavier than air – and with no windows and doors to stop the “gas” – it found its victims unprotected in underground cellars. These crimes against humanity were then followed up with a conventional bombardment to destroy the evidence.
Thankfully, as Hitler and Saddam eventually found out, there are always survivors of gas attacks aimed at annihilation – and justice will eventually prevail against those in the Syrian regime responsible.
Some 28 years after Halabja, the Iraqi Kurds are again under attack from tyranny, in this case under the banner of ISIL. On many occasions in the past two weeks, the Peshmerga, the fighting force of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, has been under chemical bombardment from ISIL.
This home-made “dusty” mustard – though not as toxic as the liquid produced by Saddam and the Syrian regime – has still killed many and injured hundreds. Last year, ISIL reportedly used the mustard agent a number of times against the Peshmerga in the Mosul Dam area, and against civilians in the northern Syrian town of Marea.
The Peshmerga is well familiar with chemical attacks, and many experienced the complete range at Halabja and in dozens of other subsequent chemical attacks.Reports from Iraq over the past weekend claimed that ISIL launched a chemical attack in Taza, near Tikrit, with mustard agent on two occasions, killing one person and injuring 600.
Now they face this most terrifying of weapons again from ISIL with little or no protection.
However, knowledge undoubtedly save lives and also nullify this weapon that threatens to tip the balance of this battle in ISIL’s favour – especially if Western forces do not commit ground troops with chemical warfare experience.
It is the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who are putting up the sternest fight on the ground against ISIL. But if a “no-fly zone” and “safe havens” were in place in Syria and Iraq – similar to the ones imposed by the United States-led coalition in 1991, which stopped Saddam forces annihilating the Iraqi Kurds – they probably would be pushing ISIL forces back towards Mosul and then Raqqa.
The fear of chemical weapons is the real terror of war. Less than 0.5 percent of casualties during World War I were attributed to chemical weapons, yet the Great War has become synonymous with their use. The current conflict in Syria and Iraq depicts a similar picture.
ISIL employs morbidly brilliant psychological tactics and chemical weapons are the ultimate psychological weapon.
As ISIL loses more ground and gets pushed back towards Raqqa, it will use every means at its disposal to hold off defeat. In the aftermath of Taza and Sinjar attacks, chemical weapons could be employed again.
If the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army can take Mosul and push ISIL out of Iraq, the defeat of the terror group on the ground will be in sight. With that the chances for some sort of stability in the region will be in our collective grasp.
But first these ground troops must be prepared for more chemical attacks. The West must not let the Kurds down again and leave them to face another Halabja.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a chemical weapons adviser to NGOs working in Syria and Iraq. He is a former commanding officer of NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion.
Adapted from an article previously published at http://www.aljazeera.com/