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ISIS seizing chemical materials creates pretext for Iraq power change

Eric Draitser is an independent geopolitical analyst based in New York City and the founder of StopImperialism.com.

Published time: July 16, 2014 10:28
A militant Islamist fighter uses a mobile to film his fellow fighters taking part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. (Reuters)

The seizure of Saddam-era chemical weapon stockpiles by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) not only will have dangerous implications for the security situation in Iraq, but also enflame an already combustible situation in neighboring Syria.

According to Iraq’s UN Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim, ISIS fighters seized the Al Muthanna chemical weapons complex northwest of Baghdad in mid-June, underscoring the continued progress that ISIS has made in terms of controlling territory. The takeover by ISIS of the Al Muthanna site – Saddam Hussein’s premier chemical weapons research, development, and storage facility – represents far more than a tactical success for the terrorist group; it opens up new and frightening possibilities for ISIS in its war against the governments of Maliki and Assad.

Indeed, it is the regional impact of the seizure of Al Muthanna which is most unsettling. Having already experienced the use of chemical weapons by one or more jihadi militant groups in Syria, Damascus is undoubtedly concerned about these latest developments. Likewise, the Maliki government in Baghdad must look upon this as an extremely dangerous threat to itself and the Iraqi people, particularly the Shia majority which will likely bear the brunt of any ISIS attack, chemical or otherwise.

The regional impact

The seizure of Al Muthanna could have a significant, and quite dangerous, effect on both the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Because ISIS territory encompasses part of both Iraq and Syria, it is impossible to look at either country in a vacuum. That is to say, ISIS is at war with the governments of both countries and therefore the theater for this conflict stretches across both countries. Given also the multiple instances of the use of chemical weapons in Syria by the terrorist groups fighting Assad, it would seem that the strategic calculus on the ground just got exponentially more dangerous for Damascus.

Like its ally in Syria, Iraq faces a new and dangerous threat with ISIS in control of the chemical weapons stockpile. While US State Department and Pentagon officials have been falling over themselves to downplay the significance and viability of the weapons at Al Muthanna, it is quite clear that, at the very least, the dangerous chemical agents found there, specifically the much-feared sarin gas, could be used in future small scale chemical attacks which would only escalate both conflicts.

Despite the obvious danger, US State Department spokeswoman and unwitting comedic superstar Jen Psaki stated that, “[ISIS] has occupied the Al Muthanna complex...We remain concerned about the seizure of any military site...We do not believe that the complex contains CW [chemical weapons] materials of military value and it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to safely move the materials.” Psaki’s sentiments were echoed by her counterparts at the Pentagon.

So, while it seems the Obama administration is not concerned about the weapons and their possible use and/or sale, there are others in the US political and intelligence establishment who might disagree. In fact, the CIA report on Al Muthanna, which is based on close examination of the facility conducted in 2004, noted that “Stockpiles of chemical munitions are still stored there. The most dangerous ones have been declared to the UN and are sealed in bunkers. Although declared, the bunkers contents have yet to be confirmed. These areas of the compound pose a hazard to civilians and potential black marketers.” It is precisely these sealed bunkers which are of particular danger and which, now that they are in the hands of ruthless terrorists, could pose a significant threat both in the war in Iraq and Syria, and also on the world market.

AFP Photo/AL-ITISAM MEDIA

Although the chemical weapons are allegedly degraded and unusable, there has yet to be any definitive statement declaring this as such. Instead, the world is given “assurances” and State Department “beliefs” regarding the status of the chemical agents and the weapons. However, as we have seen on more than one occasion already, the chemical attacks carried out by the jihadi fighters in Syria were of low sophistication and, in many ways, could be called “improvised” chemical weapons. Does anyone truly believe that an improvised weapon cannot be made out of the stockpile seized by ISIS? As yet, no one is able to definitively make such a claim.

This danger is further heightened by the insidious role of regional players such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia in fomenting the war in Syria. Intelligence has revealed that both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been involved in plans to provide chemical weapons to terror groups operating in Syria for the purpose of then blaming the Assad government for carrying out the attacks, and thereby justifying the much desired “intervention” from the US and NATO. As Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported in April:

“Prime Minister Recep Erdogan was known to be supporting the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist faction among the rebel opposition, as well as other Islamist rebel groups. ‘We knew there were some in the Turkish government,’ a former senior US intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, told me, ‘who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria – and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat.’”

The sort of cynical power politics demonstrated by Erdogan and his government surprises no one who has followed the development of the war in Syria and the role of Turkey in fomenting it. However, what might come as shock to some is the fact that Turkey was ready to go to such lengths as either staging a false flag chemical attack or simply supplying the deadly chemical agents to their al-Nusra proxies in Syria. Such callous and deadly logic should cast the latest development in Iraq in a new light. If Ankara was willing to go to such sickening lengths to achieve its strategic objectives, what else might it, or some other interested party, be willing to do. Hersh continues, writing:

“The American and British intelligence communities had been aware since the spring of 2013 that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons...Defense Intelligence Agency issued a highly classified five-page ‘talking points’ briefing... which stated that al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell: its program, the paper said, was ‘the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 effort...Previous IC [intelligence community] focus had been almost entirely on Syrian CW [chemical weapons] stockpiles; now we see ANF attempting to make its own CW … Al-Nusra Front’s relative freedom of operation within Syria leads us to assess the group’s CW aspirations will be difficult to disrupt in the future.’ The paper drew on classified intelligence from numerous agencies: ‘Turkey and Saudi-based chemical facilitators,’ it said, ‘were attempting to obtain sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large scale production effort in Syria.’”

Hersh’s piece details the international collusion to bring down the Assad government using all available means, including chemical weapons. Essentially, his reporting makes clear that putting chemical weapons into the hands of terror groups is one of the principal means by which the West and its regional proxies hoped to bring down Assad. So, in light of such analysis, can we really be put at ease by the hollow statements of Obama administration bureaucrats and their vacuous reassurances?

Of course, there is still the strange case of former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan and the allegations that he, or close associates of his, supplied the chemical weapons used in the Ghouta chemical attack. Though eyewitnesses on the ground have pointed the finger at Bandar and his Saudi associates for providing the chemical agents used by the jihadi group, this has remained unverified, though widely suspected. Indeed, it is in keeping with the not-so-secret financial support the House of Saud has given to a wide variety of terror groups in the region, particularly those active in Syria and Iraq. And so, given these long-standing connections, does anyone truly doubt that chemical weapons seized by ISIS won’t eventually make their way onto the battlefields of Syria and Iraq?

Reuters/Stringer

A convenient pretext?

Part of the danger associated with the seizure of the Al Muthanna complex has to do with the chemical agents themselves. However, what might be even more dangerous than the weapons themselves, is the political cover they provide to the US and other interested parties to the conflict in both Iraq and Syria.

Washington has been working overtime since 2011 for regime change in Syria. However, in neighboring Iraq, the US has quietly become very displeased with Prime Minister Maliki who, rather than being a compliant puppet, has chosen to move the country closer to Tehran, support Assad in the face of an internationally led and financed terror war, and generally remain outside the control of Washington. And so, with the fall of Mosul, the drum beat of regime change in Iraq grew louder than it ever had been before. Given the tenuous grip on power that Maliki has, it would seem the perfect moment for his enemies to gain control of the chemical stockpile, and thereby justify some sort of intervention.

Indeed, the US has sent in a small contingent of troops who, far from protecting Maliki, are in Iraq to protect Western economic and political interests as the country disintegrates. What better public relations talking point than to claim that Maliki can no longer protect his own people, let alone his weapons, from falling into the hands of ISIS. By delegitimizing Maliki in this way, the chemical weapons merely become the pretext for the premeditated regime change long since planned.

Likewise, Assad’s government must be wary of any renewed attempts to stage another chemical attack and blame it on his government. Although there was no hard evidence linking Damascus to any of the chemical incidents that did not stop Washington from nearly going through with a disastrous (and illegal) bombing campaign in Syria. Undoubtedly, Washington could do so again were there a chemical attack carried out by ISIS, Nusra, or any other group. Put simply, any chemical weapons seized by jihadis can, and likely will, be used against the governments (and people) of Syria and Iraq.

As the world watches in horror Iraq’s demise and Syria’s continued war, the specter of regional war still looms large. With chemical weapons circulating in Iraq, it goes without saying that Iran, with its history being victimized by Saddam’s war and his chemical stockpiles, is going to be particularly nervous and quick to intervene should the danger of chemical attack present itself. So too will the US and its NATO allies and regional proxies be quick to move towards full-scale intervention. It seems then that the seizure of the chemical weapons at Al Muthanna is merely the latest escalation in a series of escalations throughout the region. Just as it seemed that the situation in Syria was coming under the control of the legal government, and the war in Iraq reached a standstill, this latest development emerged.

The dogs of war are barking, and ISIS is throwing them bloody meat. Once they taste blood, they cannot be put back into their cages without a fight. And, sadly, it seems the fight is only just beginning.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.