Two chemical weapons-related stories this week should be considered separate, not necessarily interchangeable, parts of a whole.
The first was that ISIS had used chemical weapons against Kurdish forces in Kobani, raising the question of where ISIS would have acquired such weapons. The second, in the New York Times, detailed how U.S. forces in Iraq uncovered thousands of shells filled with chemical munitions from various areas of the country following the invasion, and how they were stored and guarded until 2011.
Those disinclined to support the Iraq War, including the Times, International Business Times, and Huffington Post, posit that the chemicals ISIS is said to have used in Kobani are from old Iraqi stocks now under ISIS control. That would make it “Bush’s fault.” The NYT story details how the Bush administration hid the finding of chemical munitions and suggests two motives:
First, neither the troops nor expert groups dispatched later found the active Iraqi chemical weapons production capability the administration said existed. Information about the age and condition of the shells, and the absence of newer munitions, would have confirmed that Saddam had no active program, further undermining already lagging support for the war.
What U.S. troops in Iraq found was old and leaky but still very, very dangerous. In fact, the most important part of the story is how American troops were exposed to chemical shells that had been turned into IEDs and found caches of chemical ordinance lying around in ditches. Their treatment by the U.S. military, including poor medical treatment, denial of Purple Heart medals, and later lack of medical follow-up should be seen as a precursor to the VA scandals of 2014.
Second, reporting would have indicted a number of Western countries for their role in providing Saddam with chemical capabilities in the first place. “Germans built the facilities…aviation bombs from a Spanish manufacturer, American-designed artillery shells from European companies, and Egyptian and Italian ground-to-ground rockets — to be filled in Iraq,” according to the NYT. This is not news. The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq by Kenneth Timmerman was published in 1991 with the details in spades.
So did ISIS really raid the leaky Iraqi stocks from a containment facility in territory now under its control? That could prove more toxic to ISIS than to the Kurds.
How about a more plausible scenario? ISIS got its supplies from Syria.
ISIS is ensconced in Syria, where Bashar Assad had a large, modern, and well-known program of CW production. In August 2013, after Syria used chemical weapons in the city of Ghouta, and after President Obama’s “red line” proved to be a thin thread, Russia sponsored and the U.S. and U.N. agreed to a deal under which Syria “declare its stocks” of chemical weapons and turn them over to the U.N.’s Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) team for shipment out of the country, and dismantle its declared CW sites.
The agreement and its execution were crucial to the Obama administration, as it provided the rationale for calling off the threat of U.S. military intervention.
In July 2014, the Obama administration crowed over what it called the destruction of the Syrian government’s declared chemical weapon stockpile,” heralding the “neutralization of chemical agents…as a watershed moment in the Syrian conflict.” As reported in The Washington Post, President Obama said, said “destruction” “[a]dvances our collective goal to ensure that the Assad regime cannot use its chemical arsenal against the Syrian people and sends a clear message that the use of these abhorrent weapons has consequences and will not be tolerated by the international community.”
He was echoed by Secretary of State Kerry: “In record time, even amid a civil war, we removed and have now destroyed the most dangerous chemicals in the regime’s declared stockpiles.”
Both acknowledged that it wasn’t quite the whole Syrian stockpile – after all, OPCW was relying on a self-declared Syrian arsenal. But OPCW was willing to swear that the President’s optimism was warranted. In a remarkably precise statement, Sigrid Kaag, special coordinator for OPCW-U.N., said 96% percent of Syria’s declared chemical weapons were destroyed. Not 95% or 87% or 43.5%, but 96% on the nose.
By August, the administration claimed that the Syrian munitions had been “fully destroyed” but acknowledged that the munitions factories had not been dismantled as required by the agreement. According to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, at least one of 12 storage facilities remained open, and only 5 of 18 production facilities had been closed. An October 1 report by Fox News included the following: “The United States has said it is worried that the Islamic State group, which has seized large parts of Syria, and other terrorist groups could get hold of chemical weapons if Syria is hiding any stockpiles.”
Which is more likely? That ISIS is handling pre-1991-era leaky canisters of CW damaged and improperly stored in Iraq, or that it has taken much more modern stockpiles – perhaps new weapons produced in unshuttered facilities in Syria – for use in its destructive sweep through both countries? The first would indict the Bush administration, the second the Obama administration.
The Pentagon, by the way, denies that ISIS has seized any chemical weapons in either country. “We have no indications right now that they have possession of those kinds of munitions,” according to spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.