Last August, nearly one year after an attack that killed nearly 1,000 civilians in the rebel stronghold of eastern Ghouta, U.S. officials said the Syrian government’s chemical weapons cache had been successfully destroyed. But two months later the Syrian government declared it had four chemical weapons facilities that it previously kept secret. The apparent reason it disclosed them: growing fears that the remaining chemical weapons could fall in the hands of fighters from the Islamic State (ISIS), which is now in control of one-third of Syrian territory.
Hamish de Bretton Gordon, OBE, a chemical weapons expert and Managing Director Avon Protection, has provided training to a group of doctors and first responders inside Syria on how to cope with chemical attacks and deal with the dangerous material that emerged on behalf of the charity Syria Relief.
He spoke to Syria Deeply about ISIS, chemical weapons and what he sees as the real threat on the ground.
Syria Deeply: How frequently is chlorine gas used against civilian populations inside Syria today? How and where are they being used?
De Bretton Gordon: The majority of Assad’s chemical weapons were taken out through a fantastic operation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The OPCW has now said that the Syrian government is starting to destroy the four remaining bunkers, which were used to store and manufacture chemical weapons. However, the regime is still using chlorine in attacks against civilians. Since the Ghouta attack, there have been 97 recorded chemical attacks, predominantly [using] chlorine.
The modus operandi of Assad has been to use chemical weapons when all other efforts have failed. In Ghouta, the regime was fighting the opposition for 18 months with bombs and bullets. In my personal opinion, he used Sarin – a very effective chemical weapon – as a last-ditch effort to repel the opposition when they were encroaching on his headquarters in Damascus. The regime saw it work in Ghouta and had used it successfully against the Islamic State in Dier Ezzor, and in Kafr Zita, the strategic town north of Damascus against the rebels and civilians. More worryingly, the Regime has allegedly used chemical weapons against ISIS in Deir Ezzor, dropping chlorine on them to prevent them from taking over the airport.
Syria Deeply: How much material is in question?
De Bretton Gordon: There are still thousands of tons of chlorine in Iraq and Syria, which at the moment seems to be the chemical weapon the Assad Regime and the Islamic State are using.
The Assad regime allegedly has up to 20,000 barrel bombs of chlorine. The issue is there is no shortage of supply of chlorine in the world. Chlorine has many commercial uses. For example, the key decontaminant in West Africa against Ebola is chlorine, but in Syria and Iraq it is used as a weapon to kill people. However, improvised chemical weapons like chlorine tend to be less toxic than real chemical weapons, but they have the same psychological impact as real chemical weapons.
Syria Deeply: There has been some reporting that ISIS now has control of chemical weapons seized in Iraq. If that were true, how and why would they use them?
De Bretton Gordon: I was in Baghdad before Christmas, advising the Iraqi security forces on how to counter chemical and biological threats from the Islamic State. There is a concern that the use of chlorine has proliferated from Syria to Iraq, and evidence that suggests they have used chlorine in Iraq against coalition forces. However, though ISIS took control of the Al Muthana chemical stockpile (Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapon stockpile) in Jul 14, it has recently been reported that Iraq Forces have recaptured the base and there is no indication that any chemical weapons are missing.
The modus operandi with Islamic State in Iraq is mortar bombs. They take the majority of the explosive out of the mortar bombs and replace it with a small amount of chlorine. It’s effective, but it’s such a small amount that it shouldn’t hurt anyone if they take the right evasive actions. It’s easy to avoid becoming casualties as long as you know basic principles – hold your breath and runaway as chlorine is easy to see, it is a green and yellow smoke and disperses very quickly.
As ISIS get further pushed in Iraq, I believe they are likely to use chemical weapons more often, in the same way as Assad.
Syria Deeply: How large is the chemical threat vs. the psychological threat of ISIS using chemical weapons?
De Bretton Gordon: The Islamic State has seen how devastating the effect of chlorine attacks are in Syria. Chemical weapons terrorize people and have a tremendous psychological effect on civilians in Syria and Iraq. The people in Syria and Iraq are very attuned to chemical weapons – it’s been an issue in that part of the world since Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds at Halabja 16 Mar 1988. The fear factor with chlorine is a thousand times worse than the physical factor.
One of the doctors I trained who works in Aleppo told me that people are terrified of chlorine bombs because they claimed they could hide from barrel bombs and snipers, but not from gas.
However, the physical issues of barrel bombs and snipers deserve more attention than chemical weapons. Chlorine and other improvised chemical weapons are not that poisonous. In Syria, people told me they estimated that nearly 300,000 people have died, while the official figures are 200,000, but only 1,500 have been caused by chemical weapons, less than 1%.
Syria Deeply: What are examples of evasive actions civilians could take?
De Bretton Gordon: This is one of the dreadful and bizarre things about Syria: weapons that killed people in World War I are still killing people nearly 100 years later. I am advising people to use methods to survive in Syria that were used in World War I because they don’t have any other options. Simply to run away or to ‘urinate’ into cloths and bandages and use as a homemade gas mask – it was effective in the first World War and it is effective in Syria today.
It will be very difficult to stop the Islamic State from using chemical weapons like chlorine … they are proliferating the fear factor. If we can take the fear out of it, you take the power out of that weapon.