The Iraqi Kurd Peshmerga forces have been attacked 8 times in the last 2 weeks with mustard agent (gas) causing over 200 casualities according to Kurdish officials. These attacks are well documented, but somewhat lost in the media noise around the Syrian ceasefire and Brexit.
Russian Foreign Secretary Lavrov spoke about them this week in Geneva saying the ISIL chemical weapons threat is not only in Iraq but could manifest itself as a global threat if not directly targeted, now.
With the major offensive against ISIL in Mosul about to begin it is highly possible that ISIL will unleash their complete range of chemical and radiological (dirty bombs) weapons against the coalition assault which is likely to be lead on the ground by the Peshmerga.
Were it not for the “no-fly zone” and “safe havens” imposed by the US-led coalition in 1991, which probably saved the Iraqi Kurdish people, they probably would not now be pushing ISIL forces back towards Mosul and thence to Raqqa.
It is highly likely that without this no-fly zone, we would have seen millions of Iraqi Kurd refugees in Europe. Saddam Hussein was bent on their extermination, which began with the al-Anfal campaign of the 1980s and is synonymous with the poisonous gas attack on Halabja in 1988, which killed at least 5,000 Kurds then and since. The Peshmerga are used to attack from chemical weapons, many experienced the complete range at Halabja, and at over 44 other major chemical attacks during the Anfal campaign.
Now they face this most terrifying of weapons again, from the ultimate terror organisation, ISIL, with little or no protection. However, some protection and knowledge will not only undoubtedly save lives but also nullify this weapon which threatens to tip the balance of this battle in ISIL’s favour, especially if Western forces do not commit ground troops, especially those experienced in chemical warfare to this fight, which at the moment seems likely.
Just occasionally, one has the opportunity to make a little difference, and in this case I am planning to get 200 or so escape hoods, [vacuum packed, once only use gas masks], to the Peshmerga frontline. With a bit of training for them, from my experiences of setting up the CBRN Defence Force in Syria over the last 3 years, it could help nullify the fear, injury and death caused by these ‘gas attacks’. Axiomatically, the tricky bit could be getting the Export Licence, as for some reason they are seen as dual use, military and civil.
However, I know the British Government is determined to support the Peshmerga and not to have British troops on the ground war, hence I should be confident of FCO and MOD support.
It is the fear of chemical weapons that is the real weapon rather than the toxicity of the agents/gas. ISIL’s morbidly brilliant physiological warfare, and chemical weapons are the ultimate psychological weapon, give them an edge. If the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army can take Mosul, and push ISIL out of Iraq, we will be well on the way to the defeat of ISIL on the ground, then the chances for some sort of peace and stability in the region will be in our collective grasp.
Hamish De Bretton Gordon is a former commander of NATO’s CBRN regiment.
Adapted from an article originally at the Daily Telegraph Online.