Refugees, Assad, And ISIL – Red Lines We Can’t Ignore This Time.
Are we missing the point about opening our doors to Syrians refugees? Surely we must set the conditions to allow them to return as soon as possible to their homes?
The demands that the UK Government, and others, open their doors to thousands of Syrian refugees, strikes me as completely the wrong approach, and that we really haven’t learned previous lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan.
I’ve been to Syria a bit in the last 4 years, and Iraq and Afghanistan a lot over last 25 years, and I know many Syrians. Every single one wants to return to Syria. The refugee problem in Europe is of our own making, a direct result of our inactivity towards Syria, and in particular, globally, ignoring the perceived, and stated red line on the use of chemical weapons after the Ghouta chemical attack in 2013, which killed up to 1500 people.
I believe we must set up Safe Zones and a No Fly Zone now in order to get Syrians back into Syria. This will be cost effective, and morally far better for Syria than allowing, potentially 5 million Syrian refugees into Europe and the Middle East. The UK, with its allies in the International Military Coalition, must step up the fight against ISIS and press to remove Assad in order create a liveable environment for civilians back in Syria.
ISIS is now using deadly chemical weapons like Mustard agent (gas) which must be the last straw as every red line, of whatever width, has now been crossed.
Some advocate prevarication to allow the Chilcott Inquiry on Iraq to be published – presumably on the assumption we must not make the same mistakes as with Iraq. However, from personnel experience I can say, unequivocally, that Iraq 2003 and Syria 2015 are completely different situations.
There is not a moment to be lost, and the UK could have made this decision to attack ISIL in Syria in July when Michael Fallon, the Defence Minister first suggested it. If this is the existential threat and the battle of our generation, as Prime Minister Cameron puts it, we do not appear to be doing much about it.
It seems pretty clear now after 3 attacks in Iraq and now 3 in Syria in the last ten days that ISIL has significant quantities of the deadly Class 1 chemical weapon Mustard Agent. Attacks against Peshmerga forces near Erbil have been confirmed as Mustard Agent and the attack on Merea, the strategic town between Aleppo and the Turkish border, is also almost certainly Mustard.
This represents a major escalation in ISIL terror campaign and physiological warfare. Mustard agent is a prescribed chemical under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), is a blister agent, persistent, and highly toxic. The last 2 properties are the most worrying, especially in Syria where doctors and civilians have virtually no equipment and little knowledge to deal with the effects of this type of attack.
Until recently Assad had been dropping chlorine barrel bombs on Aleppo. Chlorine is not very toxic and is non persistent, dispersing in minutes. Initial reports from Merea were that this was a chlorine attack, but it wasn’t. Hence the first responders and doctors when into highly contaminated areas to treat casualties and became victims themselves. The Mustard in Merea in some places could remain toxic for weeks. Perversely and axiomatically I am now advising doctors and first responders to decontaminate with chlorine at 0.5%, there is a lot available in Syria!
Now that ISIL undoubtedly has Mustard agent, the main concern is how much have they got, and a lesser issue of where it came from. To take the latter first there are three possibilities:
1. They made it themselves – possible, there are probably the constituent chemicals available in Syria and Iraq to do this – this would be a game changer if proved.
2. It came from the Al Muthana Stockpile where Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons are stored and ISIL controlled Jul-Nov 14 – unlikely but possible.
3. From Assad stockpile – Most likely. Many, including myself, believed there was up to 200 tonnes of Mustard agent missing from Assad’s chemical declaration to the UN in Oct 13. CIA recently stated Assad still had some Mustard agent and the deadly VX and there is enough reporting to suggest that some fell into the hands of ISIL last December.
Therefore if you accept the last thesis, ISIL could still have considerable amounts of Mustard agent and may have the capability to make more. This signifies a considerable step up of ISIL terror campaign and one wonders where they might go to next. Of course any hint that part of this deadly chemical weapon arsenal is moved out of the Iraq/Syria theatre of war could have a very significant psychological impact regionally and globally.
In summary, we must create a No Fly Zone to prevent the hemorrhaging of civilians out of Syria, closely followed by Safe Zones to allow aid in. In conjunction with this, the International Military Coalition must step up its air and land campaign and hit, very hard, any ISIL units likely to possess or about to use chemical weapons. This is a Red line we absolutely cannot afford to ignore and we must begin to set the conditions for Syrian refugees to return to Syria, or it will not be 1 million looking for homes in the UK, Europe and the Middle East but more like 5 Million, and by the end of this year.
Hamish de Bretton Gordon is an adviser to NGOs working in Syria. He is a former commanding officer of NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion