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ISIS could be using decades-old mustard gas in Syria

Chemical warfare seems to be alive and kicking in Syria and Iraq.

The world breathed a sigh of relief when Syria’s chemical weapons were destroyed last year. But reports have been coming in of the militant group ISIS attacking Kurdish towns in Syria and Iraq with mustard gas, and of ISIS and the Assad regime in Syria using chlorine gas.

Syria, and Iraq before the first Gulf War in 1991, had stockpiles of mustard gas, which causes severe blistering of the skin and lungs. Officially, these have all been removed or destroyed.

But in August, victims of an ISIS attack in northern Syria showed symptoms of exposure to the gas. Last week, Gerhard Schindler, head of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, said ISIS has begun mustard gas attacks against Kurds in north Iraq.

It is possible that ISIS is making the gas itself, Schindler says. One site where it could be synthesised might be the captured labs at the University of Mosul in Iraq.

But chemical weapons experts say it is easier to simply plunder old stockpiles. Mustard gas lasts a long time — it still persists in first world war shells, for example.

And stockpiles are probably still around. A report by The New York Times last year based on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act found that after the 2003 invasion, US forces found some 5000 pre-1991 chemical munitions in caches across Iraq, including areas now held by ISIS. Some ISIS leaders were members of the former Iraqi regime, says chemical weapons expert Jean-Pascal Zanders, so they might be familiar with how to recycle these.

The Syrian government, meanwhile, and opposition forces other than ISIS have denied using chemical weapons. On 27 August the UN launched a special investigation in an attempt to determine who is using poison gas in Syria.


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