Mustard Gas in Iraq?

Iraqi forces, supported by US troops, are preparing to retake the city of Mosul from Islamic State over the next few weeks. It’s a major operation that will eject ISIS from their last real stronghold in Iraq, and should seriously weaken them as an organization.

But ISIS won’t take this assault lying down, and there are already signs that they might be willing to escalate the conflict into some pretty dangerous territory. Last week an ISIS rocket landed a few hundred yards from a US base in the region – and, while it’s not confirmed and may be a false alarm, there’s some evidence that it might have contained a chemical agent.

Initial tests on the rocket debris suggest that it was loaded with sulphur mustard, a powerful H-series blister agent. Two US troops were potentially exposed but haven’t shown any symptoms. This doesn’t prove anything, of course, because they were rapidly decontaminated and probably didn’t directly contact the debris anyway – they noticed that it was covered in unusual residue, so it isn’t likely they’d have touched it.

It’s known that Syria used to have a stockpile of Yperite, or HD agent, but probably not recently. Syria had an extremely sophisticated chemical weapons program that was mostly based around binary CB and VX nerve agents. Yperite is a pretty crude blister agent – it takes its name from Ypres, in Belgium, where it was first used by the Germans in 1917.

gas-maskISIS could certainly have captured an old Syrian stockpile, but it also wouldn’t be hard for them to make it themselves. Unlike nerve agents, its precursors are all fairly simple chemicals that could be obtained without too many problems, and information on how to make it is easy to find online.

Current US chemical protective equipment and drills are highly effective against mustard agents, so in theory there isn’t that much to worry about. In practice, it might be different. Since the demise of the USSR and its massive chemical stockpiles, the West has got a bit slack about defense against these weapons.

It used to be that every major exercise had an NBC phase, usually just before ENDEX, but that habit has faded away. Most units just pay lip service to it now, doing enough training to meet annual testing requirements then shoving the CS-tainted suits to the back of the store for the rest of the year.

Chemical weapons have been used in the Syrian civil war already, but only between the warring factions. If ISIS is ready to escalate to launching them at US forces, we could be looking at a whole new ball game. What if they manage to land a chemical barrage on an unprepared unit – or a terrorist attack uncorks a barrel of something nasty in a western city? What response will America demand?

The USA and its allies got rid of chemical weapons a long time ago. Now the only weapons of mass destruction in the Western arsenal are nuclear ones. President Obama has ruled that the USA will never drop a bucket of sunshine on a non-nuclear state – but would that hold up in the face of a mass casualty attack using chemical weapons? With a few thousand citizens dead and maimed, could the Syrian war stumble over the final threshold?

I don’t think so. But, increasingly, I wouldn’t want to bet my pension on that.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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