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Did ISIS Perpetrate the Damascus Sarin Gas Attack in 2013?

When we posted on the special MERIA report by Jon Spyer on the probable ISIS Chemical Weapons  (CW) attack that killed Kurdish YPG fighters in the village of Avdiko near Kobani, Syria, we referenced the mid-2013 gassing that killed 1,500 in the suburbs of Damascus “by the Assad regime”.  However, there is evidence indicating that the horrific sarin attack in August 2013 may not have been perpetrated by the Assad regime at all, but rather it may have been the work of ISIS.  Recent experience with ISIS demonstrates their willingness to behave far beyond the capabilities of any other terrorist organization. Moreover, the situation in Syria is complex, to the point of being bewildering to the Western mind. To oversimplify the events that take place in this strange and deadly war is both foolish and dangerous.

ISIS began operating in Syria quietly, using the fighting of other groups as camouflage. But over time, they systematically took over large portions of northern Syria. Crimes of extreme barbarism and mass murders, also attributed to Assad, were clearly the work of ISIS, who particularly targeted Christians, Alawites, Shia Muslims, and other minorities. Women and children were viciously tortured and murdered and men were systematically shot, beheaded, or crucified.  These are the hallmarks of ISIS, not Assad. From there, the short steps to acquiring, and deploying chemical weapons were a logical progression.

There are scores of fighting groups participating in the Syrian war. All are ostensibly there in Syria to fight the Assad regime, but they frequently change names, alliances, and even their missions. They fight Assad’s military and they fight each other. So understanding the situation clearly and fully is a daunting task. Not all the groups have the capability or the interest in engaging with chemical weapons. But ISIS has shown a clear interest. In fact, of them all, ISIS has proven to be the most effective and the most deadly.

It has been fashionable throughout the Syrian war that began in 2011 to attribute all the atrocities of the war to Syrian President Bashar Assad, and it is certainly true that his forces have been responsible for many of them. But the easy explanation may not always be the true story.

On March 19, 2013, Assad blamed an alleged chemical attack against Khan Al-Assal near Aleppo on the rebels. He immediately called for a UN investigation of the attack. However he changed his mind when other CW attacks were reported by the US, Britain, and France and the UN decided to expand the investigation. After several months of negotiations, UN inspectors received permission to go to the sites of Khan Al-Assal and two other alleged attacks.  At Syria’s insistence, their mandate was limited to reporting only on whether chemical weapons were used and not on who was responsible.

Many stories about the gas attacks abounded in 2013. According to sources in Syria, the perpetrators may well have been ISIS, which was known to be operating in both northern Syria and the area around Damascus, although al Nusrah, another al Qaeda affiliate , took credit for the Damascus attack. The various reports which both appeared in the media and through private channels were at once confusing and enlightening.

The US administration immediately adopted the position that Assad was responsible for all the gas attacks. In referring to the August attack, US UN Ambassador Samantha Power said “only the regime could have carried out this large-scale attack.” According to Power, the quality of the sarin was higher than that used by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein against Iran, and there was no evidence that the rebels possessed the nerve agent or the ability to deploy it. But lack of evidence is not proof, and the reference to Saddam Hussein’s old store of CW was a red herring, since it was likely that the gas came from Syria.  Syria was known to have an active program of developing and storing large stores of chemical and biological weapons.

On May 6, 2013 the Washington Times reported, “Testimony from victims strongly suggests it was the rebels, not the Syrian government that used Sarin nerve gas during a recent incident in the revolution-wracked nation quoting a UN source.”

Carla del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, added in an interview with Swiss TV, that her commission had not found evidence of Assad government forces using chemical weapons.  They were referring to an earlier attack for which critics of Assad were already holding him responsible.

The Washington Times article featured videos of terrorist forces preparing and then firing what they claimed were chemical weapons which they referenced to specifically as “sarin gas”. One of the weapons was clearly marked in English “Saudi Factory for Chlorine and Alkalies”. The evidence presented in the article is compelling proof that they were not perpetarted by he Assad military.

Reports from sources on the ground in Syria indicated that a Syrian army base near Damascus had been overwhelmed by terrorists, who had stolen chemical weapons and rocket launchers from the stores there. There are a number of stories regarding what happened next.

According to media reports, there were several attacks from rocket mounted chemical warheads against the Ein Tarma, Moadamiyeh and Zamalka neighborhoods of Ghouta near Damascus. One report was that the weapons exploded prematurely as they were being transported through a tunnel, killing and wounding several of the terrorists.  Another report that the weapons were in fact fired from an area close to Damascus was released at the same time. Both are consistent with what we have been told by other sources and the stories are not mutually exclusive.

Finally, there is the question of what happened to the Syrian chemical weapons stores that the UN was tasked to destroy. On September 4, 2014, the Special Coordinator for the Joint Mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations (OPCW-UN) reported to the Security Council that 96 percent of Syria’s declared stockpile had already been destroyed and preparations were underway to destroy the remaining 12 production facilities. The operative word in that sentence is “declared”. The report flies in the face of our sources, who report that in fact only 11% of the CW stores were actually destroyed. Much of the remaining weapons were moved into the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon (Hezbollah territory) and into the many caves located in the mountains that flank the valley.

The remaining chemicals were hidden in secret locations in Syria. On October 14,  2014  according to the Associated Press and  reported by Israel National News, Syria revealed the existence of four secret chemical weapons facilities, locations that had been previously hidden from UN inspectors when they were destroying what they thought was Assad’s complete chemical weapons stores. No doubt there are more, and whatever Assad’s reason for revealing these sites now, his announcement raises far more questions about Syria’s CW program than it answers.

Prior to the UN involvement in shutting down the Syrian CW program, some CW were undoubtedly stolen by ISIS as they continued to take over territory in the north. The capture of the al-Saphira chemical plant near Aleppo in December 2012 was an early sign that chemical weapons were a clear target of the al Qaeda-linked groups, al Nusrah and ISIS. Connect that to the latest reports from Kobani and a starkly graphic picture emerges of how freely ISIS has been willing to use chemical weapons against innocent civilians. Their latest has been what appears to be mustard gas against the remaining citizens of that Syrian city. Combined with their total lack of constraint on the use of CW, the former Hussein Ba’athist commanders who have joined ISIS have the necessary experience and knowledge to enable ISIS to use them without compunction. The mix is lethal and barbaric.

The Daily Mail reported that Iraq officials had CCTV pictures of ISIS fighters loading equipment from the abandoned Hussein era Al-Muthanna complex in June 2014 with an estimated 2,500 rockets containing Sarin gas.  The Daily Mail reported:

In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim said remnants of a former chemical weapons program are kept in two bunkers there.

‘The project management spotted at dawn on Thursday, 12 June 2014, through the camera surveillance system, the looting of some of the project equipment and appliances, before the terrorists disabled the surveillance system,’ Alhakim wrote in the letter dated June 30.

‘The Government of Iraq requests the  Member States of the United Nations to understand the current inability of Iraq, owing to the deterioration of the security situation, to fulfill its obligations to destroy chemical weapons,’ he said.

[…]

The last major report by U.N. inspectors on the status of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program was released about a year after the experts left in March 2003. It states that Bunker 13 contained 2,500 sarin-filled 122-mm chemical rockets produced and filled before 1991, and about 180 tons of sodium cyanide, ‘a very toxic chemical and a precursor for the warfare agent tabun.’

Regarding the potential of ISIS’ ability to use captured former Hussein era CW caches, the National Post reported a former British Colonel who suggested that it may be capable of using them to make dirty bombs, ISIS could make dirty bombs with CW, former British Colonel says.  The NP special report cited the British expert saying:

Hamish de Breton-Gordon, a former colonel, issued the warning after it was found that two large stockpiles of shells filled with mustard and sarin gas had not been made secure, either under the American occupation or when Iraqi forces controlled the areas north of Baghdad before this summer.

Mr. Breton-Gordon said ISIS had shown it was determined to use chemical weapons in Syria and its advance in Iraq had put dangerous material within the group’s grasp.

“These materials are not as secure as we had been led to believe and now pose some significant threat to the coalition in Iraq fighting ISIS,” he said.

“We know that ISIS have researched the use of chemical weapons in Syria for the last two years and worryingly there are already unconfirmed reports that ISIS has used mustard gas as it pursues its offensive against the Kurds in Kobani.”

“They certainly have access to the Al-Qaeda research into chemical weapons and will want to use the legacy weapons in Iraq.” ISIS seized the Muthanna State Establishment, where Iraqi chemical agent production was based in the Eighties, this summer.

The New York Times (NYTreported Wednesday that last year, two contaminated bunkers there containing cyanide components and sarin gas rockets as well as other shells which had not been encased in concrete and made safe.

It also reported that another large bunker where U.S. Marines found mustard shells in 2008 was overgrown and abandoned during the same visit.

The NYT reported that the US Army recovered more than 5,000 abandoned CW shells over the period from 2004 to 2011.

Watch this NYT video of the special CW report.

Connect the dots.  Was ISIS involved with gas attacks in spring 2013 and the August 2013 sarin attacks in Damascus?   In addition, there is Spyer’s MERIA report of a mustard gas attack that killed Kurdish YPG fighters in July 2014.   Did the ISIS attackers used Mustard gas looted from the Al-Muthanna complex as cited in the NP report by a British expert?

Whatever the history of ISIS’ learning curve, it is clearly rapidly becoming  a force to be reckoned with. In only a few short years, ISIS has acquired a formidable capability to undertake genocidal attacks in both Syria and Iraq akin to that perpetrated against Kurds in Halabja in 1988.  The choice which now faces the West is not whether to stop ISIS on its deadly rampage against civilization, but how to do so effectively and permanently? To do otherwise will be to unleash ISIS against targets worldwide and put our civilization as we know it at terrible deadly risk.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review. The featured image is of victims of the sarin gas attack in Ghouta, Syria vicinity,  August 21, 2013. Source: Reuters