The Pentagon Worried About Spreading Poisonous Debris in Iraq Strike
Blowing up chemical weapons from the air is still hard
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Sept. 13, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the top U.S. Air Force officer in charge of operations in the Middle East, announced that American jets — including deadly A-10 ground-attackers and lumbering B-52 bombers — had blown up a giant chemical weapons site in Iraq.
According to the general, Islamic State terrorists had been using the converted pharmaceutical plant to produce either chlorine or mustard agents.
“The target set, as we better understood it, was basically a pharmaceutical element that they were, we believe, using them for most probably chlorine or mustard gas,” Harrigian explained in a press conference, where he also showed the video footage of the attack below. “We don’t know for sure at this point.”
But the Pentagon knew enough to be worried that the bombs might spread poisonous debris around the area, possibly threatening innocent civilians. The flying branch took extra precautions to try and prevent that nightmare scenario.
“There was definitely a concern of chemical dispersion,” Kiley Dougherty, the chief of media operations at U.S. Air Forces Central Command told War Is Boring by email. “So a detailed analysis was completed that included environmental factors and population density to ensure the air coalition struck the targets at an appropriate time.”
As both the Syrian civil war and the fight against Islamic State continue to be defined at least in part by chemical weapons, the Pentagon could find itself attacking more production sites. Still, if the business of launching air strikes is already complex, blasting weapons of mass destruction destruction from the sky is a particularly complicated equation.
As the fighting between Syrian president Bashar Al Assad and his myriad opponents exploded in 2012, Washington immediately worried that Damascus might turn to its chemical arsenal. At that time, Syria had not agreed to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits signatories from making or using the horrific mixtures.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Barack Obama famously declared on Aug. 20, 2012. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
Obama and other American officials reiterated these “red line” comments in the subsequent months. As reports of chemical weapon attacks increased, the media and experts speculated about how the Pentagon might eliminate Assad’s poisonous stockpiles.
Bombs and missiles “can be effective but indiscriminate; a resulting explosion or fire could have collateral effects on near-by civilians or even friendly forces,” one Air Force handbook warns. “Even electronic warfare options, which in some cases can be more precisely tailored … , could result in unintended collateral effects, such as shutting down nearby civilian facilities such as hospitals.”
When looking at attacking Syria in 2012 and 2013, the Pentagon had various types of bunker-busting bombs available to break open the reinforced concrete “igloos” holding the chemical weaponry. But at the time, American fliers only had two weapons readily available that could break open these containers without necessarily creating a bigger hazard for anyone nearby.
One option was the CBU-107 Passive Attack Weapon, a cluster bomb full of inert metal rods rather than small grenades. But weaponeers had cooked up this weapon to split apart large gas and water tanks and deprive enemy troops of necessary supplies. The bomb wouldn’t do anything to prevent a cloud of noxious debris from forming over a chemical target.
The other weapon was the BLU-119 Crash PAD, standing for “prompt agent defeat.” This bomb did have more than 400 pounds of white phosphorous specifically to incinerate any hazardous materials. The only problem was that pilots would need to drop other bombs to crack a hole in the igloos first so that the Crash PADs could reach their targets.
In short, any Pentagon plan would carry significant risks. In the September strike in Iraq, the Air Force relied on conventional bombs and did not drop any CBU-107s or BLU-119s.
Amid significant criticism from American lawmakers and Syrian opposition groups, the Obama administration appeared to back away from the threat against Assad and pursue diplomatic alternatives. On Oct. 14, 2013, Damascus formally agreed to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
As part of a plan backed by both the U.S. and Russia, the international Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons began working to remove and destroy Syria’s deadly chemical stocks shortly thereafter. Critics of the deal accused Assad of failing to declare all of his existing weapons and raw component chemicals.
Earlier in September, the United Nations and the OPCW released the results of an inquiry that blamed Damascus for two of nine chlorine gas attacks on civilians between 2014 and 2015. In spite of mounting evidence and widespread first hand reports, Syrian authorities have consistently denied responsibility for any chemical attacks.
However, while “the popular perception is that the Obama administration has turned a blind eye to the chemical attacks in Syria and Iraq, this is not wholly representative,” Karl Dewey, a chemical weapons analyst and proliferation editor for Jane’s Intelligence Review, explained in an email to War Is Boring. “The red line was evoked … when the threat of U.S. strikes is credited with forcing Syria to declare and surrender its [chemical weapons] stockpile.”
Islamic State’s reported production or capture of existing weapons full of noxious chlorine or mustard only served to make these debates more contentious. Those who questioned the Obama administration’s decision not to attack Assad’s weapons might wonder why the Pentagon just bombed an similar target with similar risks in Iraq.
“The Obama administration has found itself in a bit a bind, however, as the rise of the Islamic State, the collapse of the Iraqi army, and the antagonistic relationship with Russia has all complicated U.S. room for maneuver,” Dewey pointed out. “Although the Obama administration has been relatively silent on use of chlorine by [Syrian] government forces, there appears to have been an ongoing campaign against the Islamic State.”
In November 2014, the Pentagon included gas masks and protective, full-body suits in a planned aid package for Baghdad’s troops. The next year, American and other western advisers started advising Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers on how to properly wear this gear.
In January 2016, coalition warplanes reportedly killed Abu Malik, a chemical engineer who had worked in Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program before joining Al Qaeda and then Islamic State. Two months later, Dewey noted that Iraqi media reported an attack on an Islamic State commander known as Mohammed Al Kurdi, widely believed to be behind a spate of chlorine attacks.
“As such, the September attack isn’t overly surprising and probably represents more continuity than is commonly realized,” Dewey added. “Perhaps its best seen as a consolidation of previous patterns.”
Unfortunately, Washington’s eagerness to take out Islamic State’s production might not offer much comfort to Syrian civilians. As recently as Sept. 6, 2016, local activists accused the Syrian government of dropping more chemical weapons in the contested city of Aleppo.