A new potential nightmare has apparently just opened up for the world, and hardly anyone seems to have noticed. According to credible media reports, US intelligence believes ISIS, the world’s most dangerous terror organisation, began using chemical weapons against opposing Kurdish forces in early August. US intelligence agencies also believe ISIS probably got the mustard gas it employed against Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq from Syria’s stockpiles – stocks that are supposed to have been removed from the country and destroyed under a 2013 Russian-brokered deal.
This should be big news. A surging terrorist organisation which has shown a positive relish for deliberately flouting international norms – revelling in sex slavery, mass murder, killing innocent hostages, and genocide of ethnic minorities – is now employing chemical weapons. These could potentially be used in terror attacks in urban areas to cause massive death tolls, and even more panic. Yet few commentators seem interested.
In addition, even if these weapons aren’t used in terrorism, the international regime to prohibit chemical weapons use – observed by almost all international actors, with some relatively rare exceptions, for decades – has never looked more threadbare.
Because in addition to the alleged use of such weapons by ISIS, the Syrian regime continues to blatantly flout the 2013 deal it signed and routinely employs chlorine gas bombs against civilian areas held by rebels.
Moreover, as noted in this column in May, the international community seems completely incapable of doing anything about it – despite passing another toothless UN Security Council Resolution on August 7. This merely establishes a commission to attempt to determine who is responsible for the chlorine bomb attacks – even though everyone knows the regime is doing it. Russia supports the Assad regime – so Russia pretends to have doubts about who is responsible to protect it from any consequences. Moreover, new revelations from US intelligence also make it clear that the effort by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons was far from comprehensive. It is now believed the Syrian regime still possesses unknown amounts of not only mustard gas, but likely precursor chemicals for the much more dangerous Sarin and VX, as well as significant weapons and warheads to deliver them.
Wall Street Journal interviews with OPCW inspectors who worked in Syria point to a number of factors which explain why the disarmament was so incomplete:
• Inspectors were only permitted to visit the chemical weapons sites declared as such by the government and only with 48 hours notice. While the international community did have the right to demand access to other sites if it provided evidence to back up their claims, this right was never exercised. Yet Israeli and Western intelligence reportedly identified 45 to 50 facilities and military bases involved in chemical warfare – while the regime declared only 23.
• Inspectors were dependent on regime forces for their security as they moved around the war-torn country. This not only gave the regime an effective veto on inspector movements – it could simply claim that any planned trip inspectors wanted to undertake was “too dangerous” – it effectively forced inspectors to avoid any confrontation with the regime. “We had no choice but to cooperate with them,” Scott Cairns, a leader of the inspection team, told the Wall Street Journal. “The huge spectre of security would have hampered us had we gone in there very aggressively.”
• Governments also set out to avoid “a standoff with the regime” – rationalising that the main thing was to get the declared weapons out and destroyed, without worrying too much about what the regime had not declared. Thus, the regime was not challenged on the other suspected sites, or on dodgy claims that Syria had unilaterally destroyed most of its mustard gas before inspectors arrived and that 30% of all of Syria’s chemical-weapons warheads and bombs had been destroyed during exercises and trials.
All of this has significant implications for the nuclear deal with Iran. The Iranians almost certainly are very aware how Syria managed to largely neutralise the inspectors. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has effectively been running the Syrian regime in recent months, and indeed, weapons inspectors in Syria found IRGC soldiers at some of the facilities they inspected.
Furthermore, like the inspections in Syria, the Iran deal has big holes in it if inspectors want to look at undeclared nuclear sites. Not only is that going to take at least a 24-day process to gain access, but Iran’s sophisticated counter-intelligence apparatus will know how to further delay access by citing security concerns and other pretexts.
Moreover, as in Syria, there is going to be a strong tendency both from inspectors and government not to want to rock the boat or create a crisis with Iran over “minor” cheating. It will be argued that all the good being done by monitoring the declared sites should not be risked over mere suspicions that something is happening at an undeclared site – and that even if some cheating is going on, surely it is better to have some monitoring of what Iran is doing than none at all. The Iranians will recognise this tendency, having seen it in Syria, and exploit it to the hilt.
This particularly gives the lie to the claim that sanctions will “snapback” if Iranian cheating is detected. Even if sanctions can be effectively re-applied – and they almost certainly cannot – the fact that the treaty says any snapback of sanctions liberates Iran of all its obligations under it will mean it will almost certainly never happen.
So between chemically-armed ISIS, and an Iranian nuclear agreement almost certain to be characterised by serious cheating – the Middle East could yet become even more chaotic, ugly and violent over coming years.
This article is featured in this month’s Australia/Israel Review, which can be downloaded as a free App: see here for more details.