By Patrick Bahzad
In the last few days, a flow of media reports surfaced claiming that the "Islamic State" had launched chemical attacks against Kurdish fighters in Northern Iraq, using shells containing mustard gas. Even if the news of the alleged use of such weapons by al-Baghdadi's troops seems absolutely possible, there must be something about the month of August, chemical attacks and the Middle-East ... Two years ago, almost to this day, news of another terrible attack almost triggered Western intervention in the Syrian quagmire. Unknown to most however, August 2013 in Eastern Damascus was not the first and only instance in which a large scale and deadly attack using a chemical agent may have happened in the post-2003 madhouse the Middle-East has turned into.
While US Central Command has been very careful in its reaction to the recent news about prohibited weapons being used against the Kurds, with its spokesman Col. Ryder stating that "we really don't know what if anything may have been used", major news outlets – the LA Times, the Wall Street Journal and Fox News to name but a few - were very quick to pick up that story, often adding as an explanation that the chemical agent must have come from Bashar al-Assad's allegedly destroyed stockpile of WMDs.
Events of Eastern Ghouta in August 2013
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which had already supervised the destruction of the Syrian arsenal of chemical and biological weapons in 2013-2014, is now going to launch an inquiry into this supposed breach of international law. We will see what conclusions the OPCW can draw from its analysis on the ground. Most likely, nothing conclusive will surface and no smoking gun will turn up … What is more interesting about this story is that it emerged two years exactly after the Eastern Ghouta events of August 2013, which almost triggered an Western intervention in the Syrian civil war.
What happened back then is still open to a certain level of conjecture. Western intelligence agencies and NGOs quickly condemned a Syrian military operation using a nerve agent (sarin) against insurgents and civilian populations in the South Eastern suburbs of Damascus. A special investigation by the UN however refrained from specifically designating which party could have launched the attack and an independent review by the MIT even alleged the rockets used to deliver the deadly payload could only have been launched – if at all – from rebel controlled areas.
The UN report also noted a couple of inconsistencies in the evidence that was collected at the time in Damascus, inconsistencies that have not been explained so far by any party involved. The death toll of the Ghouta events is also open for debate, with the casualties varying between 287 victims (according to French intelligence), 355 (according to the NGO "Médecins sans Frontières"), 502 (according to the "Syrian Observatory for Human Rights") and 1702 (according to the "Free Syrian Army").