According to a new report from CNN, U.S. officials have confirmed that ISIS used some form of mustard agent in their attack in Hasakah, Syria two weeks ago. Though officials are downplaying the amount of chemical concentrations found in the tests, it nonetheless demonstrates the dangers this barbaric army has in store for the population it is currently terrorizing.
Because of the relatively low concentrations, officials believe this is a concoction ISIS developed on their own. That’s both good news and bad. Good, because it means the group is probably not in possession of Syrian state weaponry capable of mass destruction. Bad, because it shows how capable ISIS is on its own. This is a well-financed organization, and there is a wide-open black market through which they can get their hands on just about anything.
“We are not surprised by the possibility — possibility — that something has been used by somebody, and we have been investigating it very, very closely,” Secretary of State John Kerry said when asked about a chemical weapons attack in Iraq. “As I sit here today, we do not have confirmation, No. 1, that it was mustard and, No. 2, that somebody used it.”
Kerry is referencing a later attack in northern Iraq that officials believe may have also involved mustard agents. Tests have yet to confirm this suspicion.
Violating the Norm
We have a visceral reaction to the use of chemical weaponry due to decades of international condemnation. One need only think back to the horror of Saddam Hussein’s attack on the Kurds. In 1988, the Iraqi dictator used mustard and nerve gas to kill over 5,000 civilians in Halabja. Anyone who saw footage from the aftermath knows why it is imperative that we preserve the status quo: chemical weapons are unacceptable.
Not only do chemical weapons hold a special, painful sort of death in store for their victims, they are the perfect weapon to use against an innocent population. Mortars filled with mustard gas are not always useful in a traditional battleground situation, but they can wipe out a civilian neighborhood like nothing else. Banning them not only preserves human life; it preserves our very humanity. In a world filled with the horrors of war and conflict, we must have lines we do not cross. Red lines, even.
Of course, ISIS is not a state, no matter what the marquee might read. They are certainly not worried about violating the Geneva protocols. No amount of international condemnation is going to dissuade them from their evil agenda. So this comes down to a choice. Are we going to stop them or not? How many innocent civilians are we willing to let die for the sake of avoiding war? When does mass murder invoke a moral imperative?
Americans are war-shy, and that’s completely understandable. No one wants to send troops to die in the desert for another ten years. But this isn’t about retaliating for a tragedy or getting a win back. It’s not even about saving the Iraqi government. It’s about doing what’s right. And if the United States isn’t capable of that anymore, then what is it that we stand for?