Monday, May 9, 2016

Canada’s Special Forces face the risk of Daesh gas attacks in Iraq

Published by: Bruce Campion-Smith, Toronto Star, Ottawa burreau

ERBIL, IRAQ—For the first-time in more than a century, Canadians troops are facing a scary reality on the battlefield: the threat of a chemical attack.

Daesh militants have used mustard and chlorine gas in Iraq and Syria, the very weapons used to such horrific effect in the First World War that the international community outlawed their use.

But now Canadian special operations forces soldiers helping to mentor Peshermga troops in northern Iraq are braced for the grim possibility they could come under chemical attack.

Canadian special operations forces soldiers - a corporal, left, and a sergeant, right,- on a security detail in an area west of Erbil, just a short distance from the front line.
Canadian special operations forces soldiers - a corporal, left, and a sergeant, right,- on a security detail in an area west of Erbil, just a short distance from the front line. (Bruce Campion-Smith/Toronto Star)
The chemical weapons employed by Daesh, also known as ISIS and ISIL, are described as rudimentary but coalition commanders are not discounting the threat.

“We’ve known that’s a possibility. Obviously there were significant stockpiles of these things in Syria and ISIL made no bones about the fact they were interested in leveraging,” Maj.-Gen. Mike Rouleau, head of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, told the Star.

“We have always been prepared to deal with that threat from the very first days that we got here,” he said in an interview at a Canadian outpost, west of Erbil.

“This is something that we pay very close attention to. It’s a troubling development,” Rouleau said.

To help ensure the Canadian mission is ready to cope with the potential threat, the special operations forces command has deployed several personnel from its specialized branch responsible for dealing with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.

The deployment of the experts was to “make sure that our sampling and identification and decontamination regimes were all as good as they could be,” Rouleau said.

Canadian soldiers were among the first to ever face a chemical attack on the battlefield, when Germans deployed chlorine gas in 1915 in the Second Battle of Ypres; more specifically, the Battle of St. Julien. 

German Chlorine Gas Attack, 1915. (Wiki-commons) 
Now Daesh have been accused of using banned chemical weapons in both Iraq and Syria.

Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff, told parliamentarians earlier this year that Daesh possessed mustard and chlorine chemicals and had the means to deliver the weapons.

“It is rudimentary and relatively small-scale, but I don't take any solace in that,” Vance told the Senate defence committee in March.

“It could grow and it could get more dangerous if they were to get their hands on other types of chemical weapons, be they nerve agents or otherwise,” Vance said.

U.S. officials have confirmed that Daesh militants have used chemical agents in battle.

“We continue to track numerous allegations of ISIL’s use of chemicals in attacks in Iraq and Syria, suggesting that attacks might be widespread,” James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in February.

Days later, John Brennan, director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, said Daesh has access to “chemical precursors and munitions.”

“We have a number of instances where ISIL has used chemical munitions on the battlefield,” he told the CBS news program 60 Minutes.

Yet U.S. marines Col. Andrew Milburn, who commands special operations forces in Iraq, sought to put the risk in context.

“I’m the last guy to minimize the threat of chemical weapons but I think you have to put it in perspective and that almost all casualties in this theatre have been caused by high explosives or bullets,” Milburn said.

He suggested that Daesh lacks the technical skills to successfully deploy chemical weapons. “Otherwise I think we would have seen much more widespread use,” he said.

Instead, Milburn sees the use of what he calls “shock value” weapons as sign of desperation, an organization that is “flailing.”

“I’m not saying Daesh is down the canvas but they’re certainly against the ropes ... the last thing we want to do is underestimate the enemy but we have to be honest,” Milburn said.

“We’re not seeing a formidable organization anymore,” he said.

Rouleau agrees, saying that his soldiers face bigger threats in their Iraq mission, such as the danger of Daesh rockets and mortars.

“It’s just another one of the hazards that we pay close attention to,” he said.

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