(The Seattle Times) -- When the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun was hit this month by poison gas, the attack was condemned internationally and prompted the Trump administration to launch a retaliatory missile strike.
Last Friday, there was another attack. A rocket loaded with chlorine gas struck the neighborhood of Abar in the Iraqi city of Mosul, injuring several soldiers. Iraqi military officials said it was launched by (ISIS).
There is growing evidence that deadly chemical agents are becoming part of the ISIS arsenal.
The group used chemical weapons, including chlorine and sulfur, at least 52 times in Syria and Iraq, according to a study released in November by IHS Conflict Monitor, a London-based intelligence collection and analysis service.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said it confirmed that ISIS fighters had deployed sulfur mustard, commonly known as mustard gas, in an attack on the Syrian town of Marea, near Aleppo, in August 2015. The internationally banned substance burns a victim’s skin, throat and eyes.
“In this case, the team was able to confirm with utmost confidence that at least two people were exposed to sulfur mustard, and that it is very likely that the effects of this chemical weapon resulted in the death of an infant,” the organization said in a statement.
Series of attacks
There have been other cases.
On March 4, a dozen civilians from east Mosul were treated for suspected exposure to a blistering chemical agent after several rocket attacks by ISIS, according to an Iraqi military official. The patients were transferred to a hospital in Irbil for treatment of symptoms of a chemical attack, including blisters, burns, respiratory problems, irritation to the eyes and vomiting, the official said.
In northern Iraq, ISIS fighters fired mortar rounds loaded with sulfur mustard at Kurdish forces in October 2015, OPCW reported.
“There has been no question of where those mustard agents came from,” said Jerry Smith, former operations chief for the organization.
Chemical weapons such as chlorine gas, mustard gas and sarin are banned by most nations. They are especially difficult to defend against without protective gear, which is mostly absent on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria.
The attacks officials blame on ISIS and other forces have not resulted in the death and destruction associated with the chemical attacks attributed to the Syrian government.
The attack this month in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun killed 86 people. The government of President Bashar Assad has denied responsibility and blamed opposition forces. It has also suggested the poison gas was inadvertently released during an airstrike on a rebel-held munitions depot.
In 2013, U.S. and Syrian opposition groups accused forces loyal to Assad of lobbing sarin-filled shells at rebel-held enclaves near Damascus. According to U.S. estimates, more than 1,000 people were killed.
As a result, under a deal pushed by Russia, the Syrian government surrendered stockpiles of chemical weapons to the United Nations.
More than 95 percent of the government’s arsenal was eliminated, according to the OPCW. But the group also said there have been chemical attacks since then by rebel and government forces.
On Wednesday, Israeli defense officials said Syria still has up to 3 tons of chemical weapons. The estimate came as the head of the international chemical-weapons watchdog said laboratory tests had provided “incontrovertible” evidence that victims and survivors of the April 4 attack in northern Syria were exposed to sarin nerve gas or a similar banned toxin.
Israel, along with the United States and much of the international community, have accused Assad’s forces of carrying out the attack.
In response to the April 4 attack, the United States fired 59 missiles at a Syrian air base it said was the launching pad for the attack.
Chlorine is commercially available as an industrial chemical and has been used by bomb makers in Iraq for years. But it was unclear how ISIS obtained sulfur mustard.
Smith said extremists could make warfare-grade mustard and chlorine “fairly easily.”
The U.S.-led coalition has targeted ISIS munitions depots and weapon-manufacturing sites with airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
Smith thought it unlikely that extremists had stockpiled large quantities of chemical weapons.
“If ISIS had manufactured these weapons, I’m sure we would have seen them used by now, with half of Mosul gone,” he said.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said some ISIS units “have produced an improvised mustard-gas type of shell” from mustard seeds in makeshift chemical laboratories, “but not chlorine.”
The chemical weapons could have been seized from industrial or Syrian government stockpiles, he and other experts said.
ISIS doesn’t have the capacity to manufacture the more lethal nerve agents like sarin, Kimball said, but it could attack and seize whatever Syrian authorities refused to turn over.
“There has been a deep concern that the Syrian stockpile might fall into the wrong hands,” he said. “We now have to be focused on removing whatever nerve agents in Syria still exist.”
Assad was to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons to Smith’s monitoring group to be destroyed four years ago. Smith said that his team removed weapons the government declared, but that “It was on a bit of a trust basis.”