As predicted, and generally expected, ISIS set fire to the Mishraq Chemical plant and sulphur mine 30 kms south of Mosul last week as they fled towards Mosul. To date up to 9 people have died and around 1000 injured including foreign journalists.
The toxic cloud which includes the deadly sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide, combined with residue from burning oil wells in a potentially fatal cocktail for those caught in the open or without gas masks. The toxic cloud stretched 20-30 kms to the south over sparsely populated grounds; if the wind changed to blow to the east, as it usually does at this time of year, there is a slim chance that the Kurdish capital of Erbil, 60 kms, away could come under threat.
Mishraq is the first part of the ISIS plan to defend Mosul, at all costs, with all weapons available. It is no surprise that the ultimate terror organisation is looking to the ultimate terror weapon, chemical, to save ‘Caliphate HQ’. Chemical weapons have kept Assad in power a number of times in the last 3 years and are highly effective in defend built up areas and cities. Assad was about to be overrun in Damascus by rebels in August 2013. He had fought them conventionally for 2 years, and on the point of defeat he used up to 1000KGs of the deadly nerve agent Sarin. This stopped the rebels in their tracks, killed up to 1500 people, mainly women and children as slept in their beds, and created inertia for demonstrative action in Syria by the International Community which pervades to this day.
ISIS have been prevented from taking the strategic military airfield at Deir Ezzor east of Damascus for nearly 2 years. Each time they look like breaking in, Assad drops chlorine barrel bombs on them. This effectiveness has not gone unnoticed. Hence the attractiveness of chemical weapons to ISIS.
The ISIS chemical weapons programme is run by Saddam Hussein’s ex Ba’athist scientists and experts recruited globally. They are making mustard agent (gas) in Mosul and have an almost limitless amount of chlorine to fill into mortars, which they’ve used to attack the Peshmerga for the last 12 months and IED’s – I witnessed one such attack at Gwer in April this year.
The use of hundreds of chlorine IEDs to defend Tikrit in 2015 severely slowed the advance of the attacking Iraqi Army. The Coalition has successfully targeted the ISIS chemical programme, and killed the senior scientist, Abu Malik, in an air strike in March 2015 and US Special Forces captured other key men later that year, but it is still intact. What is clear is that, though crude, the ISIS chemical weapons programme is extensive and could be a key tool in the defence of Mosul.
Attacking towns and cities is notoriously difficult and the advantage is generally with the defender. Almost 1 million Germans failed to take Stalingrad in WW2 and the might of Russia and the Syrian military is failing to take eastern Aleppo from a few hundred rebels. Although these are not direct correlations, if you can get the attackers to wear gas masks it makes the fighting even more difficult, or if you can use chemical weapons against attackers with no gas masks, they may lose the will to continue the fight.
I have no doubt the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army will prevail in Mosul and liberate the city. However, they need to be prepared and enabled by the Coalition to combat chemical attack, as will the NGOs and aid workers who must flood into the city as soon as it is liberated.
It is not good enough to walk into another Mishraq type event and be surprised when ISIS do what we expect them to do however abhorrent. If we do, Mosul may be ungovernable after liberation.
Hamish De-Bretton Gordon is speaking about chemical weapons and Mosul at the CBRNe Convergence Congress in San Diego 1-3 Nov.