Is a new Syria chemical weapons massacre looming?

The international community should also demand the regime halt its own chemical weapon attacks

Brooklyn Middleton
Brooklyn Middleton
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Reports that ISIS used mustard gas in a recent attack underscores the looming threat of another major chemical weapon massacre in Syria. Since the U.S. and Russia-backed chemical weapons deal with the Syrian government – that was brokered in 2013 after the regime carried out the worst chemical weapon attack in the last 25 years – several deadly chlorine attacks have been documented. Grimly, the Assad regime carved out a way to continue using a chemical agent in a manner that does not trigger any response from the international community.

Meanwhile, multiple undeclared chemical weapon sites have been discovered, further discrediting the deeply flawed Russia-U.S. agreement. Since the Sarin massacre, the continued chlorine gas attacks have wreaked havoc on civilian lives while the continued existence of such agents represent a major security threat. With yet another actor now confirmed as using chemical weapons in Syria, the need to prioritize the halting of such attacks is further made clear.

On November 6, Reuters reported that officials with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed, “with the utmost confidence that at least two people were exposed to sulfur mustard" in Marea, located north of Aleppo, on August 21.

As the international community urgently attempts to assess how ISIS obtained the mustard agent, it should also demand the regime halt its own chemical weapon attacks

Brooklyn Middleton

While the organization did not identify the party responsible for the attack, the same Reuters report stated that, “diplomatic sources said the chemical had been used in the clashes between ISIS and another rebel group taking place in the town at the time.” The report further indicated the attack “very likely” killed a baby. OPCW confirmation of the mustard gas attack followed Kurdish claims – and multiple photographs – indicating ISIS carried out several chemical weapons attacks against Peshmerga fighters in both Syria and Iraq. Further, international security assessments have seemingly triggered concern that ISIS indeed has the capability and will to carry out such attacks. Prior to the OPCW’s confirmation, reports noted that the Australian Defence Forces were stepping up efforts to protect troops from possible chemical weapon attacks by ISIS in Iraq. No such preparation is possible for civilians and the only way to prevent another massive attack in Syria is to identify and eliminate the chemical agents - a process that would be nearly impossible without far deeper international engagement.

Waiting game?

In May of last year, the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism published a paper exploring what it referred to as “The Strategic Significance of Syrian Regime’s Chemical Attacks.” The piece provides an overview of regime chlorine attacks from January-April 2014 (citing Eliot Higgins’ peerless work) and also makes the critical point that the Assad regime has set a new standard for chemical attacks in the Middle East.

The authors note, “In a way Assad gives legitimacy to non-state actors, including the rebel and terrorist groups active in the Syrian civil war, and beyond, to use the same methods.”

The succinct point underscores the continued consequences of failing to adequately address the Assad regime’s usage of chemical weapons.

As the international community urgently attempts to assess how ISIS obtained the mustard agent, it should also demand the regime halt its own chemical weapon attacks. The alternative option is waiting for one of the parties to carry out yet another mass-casualty chemical weapon attack in Syria.


Brooklyn Middleton is an American Political and Security Risk Analyst currently based in New York City. She has previously written about U.S. President Obama's policy in Syria as well as Bashar al-Assad's continued crimes against his own people. She recently finished her MA thesis on Ayatollah Khomeini’s influence on the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group, completing her Master's degree in Middle Eastern Studies. You can follow her on Twitter here: @BklynMiddleton.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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