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ISIS Ups Its Deadly Chemical Game

HBGBy Hamish De Bretton Gordon OBE

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


4 Comments on "ISIS Ups Its Deadly Chemical Game"

  1. mahatmacoatmabag | 19th March 2016 at 4:34 pm | Reply

    The question must be asked is why has Obama not had the USAF use its B52 bombers to carpet bomb the petro-chemical plants that ISIS has captured in Iraq? Nearly all the USAF / USN airstrikes to date have been with F16’s & F18’s which have far smaller bomb loads compared to the B52, even the use of the B1 Lancer bomber was limited to 4 aircraft making a few token strikes. My conclusion is that Obama is not interested in defeating ISIS just as he is not interested in defeating Assad & that he has no compassion for the ordinary people of Iraq & Syria dying in the hundreds of thousands these past 5 years or fleeing by the million from the war zone in the Levant . By destroying the petro-chemical complexes ISIS controls their capacity to manufacture chemical weapons must surely be reduced as will their income from the sale of oil on the black market to Turkey & indirectly to Europe. If the use of chemical agents such as mustard gas become more widespread then the casualty toll will climb unchecked but this will not bother the Golfer in Washington DC after all the lives of ordinary Americans means nothing to him let alone the lives of his fellow Muslims in the Levant.

    • The ansa to yr q is that Mr Obama is not minded to unleash B52 carpet bombing onto facilities which contain hundreds of civilians who are working there possibly because they have no choice.

      • mahatmacoatmabag | 19th March 2016 at 5:39 pm | Reply

        Tim in war there are many civilian casualties but more are caused by inaction when dealing with homicidal regimes such as ISIS & Assad. Should Churchill & FDR have considered not bombing Germany’s petro-chemical industrial production in order to deprive the Wehrmacht of fuel ( as they did ) just to avoid killing any civilians including slave labourers in the facilities? You can make any humanitarian argument you want but the fact remains that ISIS’s ability to slaughter civilians will only increase if left unchecked & as Hamish wrote the Kurds, the most effective fighters against ISIS, seem to be the principal target. It is IMO a matter urgency that the chemical threat be dealt with as it will be used by ISIS not just in the Mid-East / North Africa but in Europe soon enough if they are allowed to expand production & acquire the skill in miniaturisation of such weapons so that they are easily transported or manufactured by ISIS cells already in Europe.

    • You are comparing total war with a very limited operation. I was only answering the question you posed and therefore the answer remains – in 2016, in a small scale conflict, the United States of America does not use B52 bombers to carpet bomb targets when hundreds of cvilians are at risk. All war is savage, happily we sometimes limit the levels of savagery.

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