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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

Israel’s “Long War”

Tom Jocelyn, the American counter terrorism expert and Senior Fellow at the Washington, DC-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies is the editor of The Long War Journal. It is a chronicle of the global Islamic jihad in the 21st Century, now in its 13th year. The global jihad was sparked by what the US State Department has taken to calling “core Al Qaeda”, most dramatically with 9/11. Subsequently it has metatisized driven by the Salafist doctrine seeking to replicate the great barbarism of the first jihad that burst out of the Arabian peninsula 14 Centuries ago. In many instances it has been a long war against indigenous populations, both Muslim and not. In the later case, it has witnessed the self-declared Caliphate of the Islamic State, formerly ISIS, confronting non-Muslims with the choice to convert, be subjugated, leave or be killed. It is sacralized barbarity emboldened with arms and advanced military technology abandoned by fleeing armies. It is financed by extortion and billions in booty, money seized in conquered territories and oil resources.

Mideast Israel Palestinians

Israeli Merkava tank leaving Gaza staging area August 5, 2014. Source: The Guardian.

Virtually alone and surrounded by these Jihadist forces is the Jewish nation of Israel. Israel has conducted a long war of its own over the 21 years since the conclusion of the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Authority. An agreement orchestrated by former President Clinton between Israeli Prime Minister, the late Yitzhak Rabin and the late Yassir Arafat, first President of the Palestinian Authority. Arafat went on to ignite the Second Intifada in September 2000 using the excuse that the late Israeli PM Ariel Sharon had made an unauthorized visit to the Temple Mount. That intifada saw thousands of Israeli causalities, both dead and wounded,  that morphed into a seemingly unending series of military Operations. It began with Operation Defensive Shield following the bloody Park Hotel Passover suicide bombing in March 2002 that killed many Holocaust survivors. It culminated in the siege of Arafat in the Mukata in 2004 in Ramallah. A brief hiatus following the demise of Arafat saw Israel build a security barrier in the disputed territories that virtually brought to a close the Second Intifada. The late PM Sharon left Likud to found a new coalition party, Kadima, on the strength of a letter in 2004 with former President Bush giving Israel permission to defend itself with US assurances.

That led Sharon in 2005 to order the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza of 9000 settlers and 10,000 IDF personnel under the misguided pretext that it would make Israel more secure. The Bush Administration was preoccupied in the Long War in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It sought to foist the myopic view that the Islamist world could be transformed into budding western style democracies. This despite the rise of anti-democratic Muslim Brotherhood elements in Gaza, Egypt and other adjacent Muslim countries. They had been kept in check by autocracies supplied with both US and Russian military assistance and aid. Thus, the Bush Administration thought it had a willing peace partner in Arafat’s successor, the long serving PA President, Mahmoud Abbas. The Bush Administration prevailed upon Israel to relinquish its control over the strategic Philadelphi corridor along the Egyptian Gaza frontier installing Fatah bureaucrats. 2006 saw the one vote, one time election in Gaza of a Hamas dominated Palestinian Legislative Council. That  lead to the June 2007 ejection and literal defenestration of Fatah from Gaza, leaving Hamas virtually in control. Israel was forced to engage in a series of air assaults that resulted in assassinations of Hamas leaders, co-founder Sheik Yassin and Dr. Rantisi. Hamas took over the Rafah border with Egypt through which arms, rockets and missiles were infiltrated along with huge infusions of cash from foreign Muslim charities and backers, Iran and Qatar.

In 2006 Israel was embroiled in the Second Lebanon War with Iran proxy Hezbollah supplied by the former with thousands of rockets. That conflict was triggered by a kidnapping of two IDF soldiers followed by massive  Hezbollah artillery rocket barrages. The 34 day War with Hezbollah saw more than 4,000 rockets rain on Israel setting a pattern that was copied by Hamas in Gaza in 2009, 2012 and 2014. In that first clash with Hezbollah saw Israel’s population in the north sweltered in crude shelters or displaced to the central Mediterranean shore. It also sparked the development of technical countermeasures to protect the both Israel’s population and IDF defense. Those developments included the now recognized Iron Dome system of batteries equipped with Tamir anti-rocket missiles, and the less well known, Trophy system, used effectively in the most recent 2014 Operation protecting armored vehicles against anti-tank rockets and missiles. Just prior to the Second Lebanon War, a cross border raid by Hamas operatives kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, holding him hostage until released in an October 2011 exchange for 1,027 Palestinian terrorist prisoners held by Israel.

In June 2009, President Obama made a dramatic speech at Cairo University extending outreach, many believed that emboldened Islamist elements in the Muslim ummah. In December,2011 the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in Tunisia sparked the so-called Arab Spring that erupted in North Africa and the Middle East. Autocracies in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt were overturned. The latter witnessed the ousting of strongman Mubarak with rise of the Muslim Brotherhood that saw the election of one if its prominent leaders, Mohammed Morsi as its President in June 2012. Morsi was backed by a National Assembly  composed of dominate Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties. They sought to impose Sharia law on women, secular elements and the country’s ancient minority Coptic Christian community. Virtually, a year later, Morsi and thousands of Muslim Brotherhood leaders were ousted, jailed and killed during a coup by his Defense Minister Gen.Abdel- Fattah El-Sisi. He was engaged in a counter terrorism campaign against Hamas linked Salafist terror groups in the Sinai.

The overthrow of the Libyan strongman Qadaffi, with aid from the US and NATO, spawned chaos with warring tribal and jihadist militias. That culminating in the Benghazi attack that killed the US Ambassador and three other Americans, a communications aide, and two CIA-contractors on 9/11/2012.

Meanwhile, Israel was concerned about security on its southern border with Egypt in the Sinai. Following cross border attacks near the Red Sea resort of Eilat it constructed a 200 mile security barrier seeking to prevent intrusion, only to be left exposed to rocket attacks. On Israel’s north eastern Golan frontier a raging civil war in Syria, now well into its third year, saw the Assad regime forces ranging across the Golan frontier fighting opposition rebel groups. These included al Qaeda affiliates the Al Nusrah front and the extremist Salafist spinoff, the Islamic State, formerly ISIS.

The latest IDF Operation Protective Edge that began on July 8th with barrages from Gaza from both homemade and Iranian supplied long range rockets covered fourth fifths of Israel. It was triggered by a botched kidnapping by Hamas operatives and that resulted in the murder of three Jewish yeshiva students, whose remains were discovered on June 30th. The Palestinian Authority in late April had announced a unity government with Hamas that scuppered any chances of a possible final stage agreement sought by US Secretary of State Kerry. Hamas is a foreign terrorist group so designated by the US, Canada and the EU. Its 1988 Charter, had sought not only the destruction of Israel but the killing of Jews globally. Israeli PM Netanyahu and his coalition cabinet had no choice but to call up what ultimately would be a massed IDF force of 80,000 elite brigades and reservists to conduct the ground phase of Operation Protective Edge. That culminated in the launch of ground operations in Gaza that ended with the seventh truce on August 5th that is holding for the moment. That truce occurred ironically on the Jewish Fast Day of Tish B’Av commemorating historic catastrophes that have befallen the Jewish people over the millennia.

Jocelyn’s FDD Long War Journal had this entry:

Israel

Israel accepted a Gaza ceasefire plan that will start with a preliminary 72-hour truce beginning tomorrow morning. Israeli officials will work out further details of the ceasefire over the next few days in Egypt. As of Aug. 1, at least 2,909 rockets had been fired at Israel from Gaza and 66 Israelis had been killed. In the first fatal attack in Jerusalem in three years, a Palestinian construction worker drove an earthmover into a bus, flipping it over and killing one Israeli and wounding five more. PM Netanyahu’s spokesman said Israel’s military campaign to destroy the Gaza tunnels is coming to a close, but that the overall operation will not cease until Israel experiences an extended period of quiet and security.

Jonathan Spyer, of the GLORIA Centre in Herzliya, published an assessment of Israel’s Long War in a PJ Media article, “Netanyahu’s Long War Doctrine.”  In it he paid tribute to Netanyahu’s cautious, but resolute position, overwhelmingly supported by Israelis, to bring to a conclusion the Hamas genocidal threat to the Jewish nation. A threat backed and financed by Qatar, a wealthy gas-rich emirate, a supporter of Muslim Brotherhood and extremist Salafist al Qaeda spinoffs. Qatar and the terrorist Salafist groups it funded and gave sanctuary to, including Hamas leaders, are viewed by Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia as a dire threat to their regimes. That created a coalition of interest with Israel tacitly condoning the latter’s war against Hamas. The Administration in Washington and the UN were desperate to end hostilities seeking to engage MB supporting regimes in Turkey and Qatar to convince Hamas to stand down. Newly elected Egyptian President El-Sisi, who had ousted MB President Morsi and closed Gazan smuggling tunnels, had endeavored to broker several cease fires during the 28 day Operation Protective Edge. It became evident that Hamas had been seriously degraded, nearly three dozen terror tunnels neutralized, sustaining an estimated $5 billion in destruction of buildings and infrastructure in the 25 mile square area of Gaza. All while the world media falsely portrayed Israel as perpetrating mounting civilian casualties most graphically at UNWRA- run schools and refuge centers where over 180,000 Gaza residents had sought shelter. These schools were reported to have held rocket caches, that enabled Hamas rocketeers to launch barrages some of which misfired resulting  in civilian casualties. This barbaric strategy was confirmed in a captured combat manual of Hamas uncovered by the IDF in Gaza City.

As to Israeli PM Netanyahu’s conduct of Operation Protective Edge Spyer observed:

Netanyahu, in stark contrast to his image in Europe and to a lesser extent in North America, is deeply cautious when it comes to the use of military force.

Indeed, the record shows that Israel elected to begin a ground campaign on July 18th only when it became clear from its actions and its statements that Hamas was not interested in a return to the status quo.

Netanyahu’s caution derives, rather, from his perception that what Israel calls “wars” or “operations” are really only episodes in a long war in which the country is engaged against those who seek its destruction. In the present phase, these forces are gathered largely under the banner of radical Islam.

Spyer concludes his assessment of Netanyahu:

Netanyahu’s vision is a chilly one, though it is not ultimately pessimistic. It aims to provide firm, durable walls for the house that the Jews of Israel have constructed. Within those walls the energies of Israeli Jews will ensure success — provided that the walls can be kept secure, thus believes the Israeli prime minister. It is from the point of view of this broader strategic picture that the current actions of Israel need to be understood. Operation Protective Edge — like Cast Lead and Orchard and Lebanon 2006 and the others — is intended as a single action in a long and unfinished war.

The Tish B’Av truce concluding Operation Protective Edge saw IDF forces leave Gaza, remaining ready if the truce is broken to return, if recalled. The current truce may still hold, but, will not last, unless and until Gaza is demilitarized and its leadership dispatched.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on the New English Review.