Russia Clearly Knew Assad’s Latest Chemical Attack in Syria Was Coming
Russia appears to have telegraphed Sunday’s attack in a tweet days before
After Syrian government forces used chemical weapons on Sunday as part of its offensive to retake enclaves from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syrian, Russia kept silent. But it appears the Russian Ministry of Defense knew the attacks were coming, and indeed worked preemptively to spread vilifying information in hopes of justifying the violence.
Syrian opposition officials have determined that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons during airstrikes on strategic positions near a key Russian military base last Sunday, a move that has sparked fears among Syrian rebels that a final offensive — one backed by illegal weapons — is underway.
The attack on Sunday, according to two eyewitnesses who spoke with Medium from inside the area, followed a predictable pattern: artillery shelling from either Syrian or Russian forces, followed by regime helicopter and jet attacks.
According to Ahmed, a 31-year-old activist who asked that his family name not be reported for fear of retaliation by either the Assad regime or Al-Qaeda, the attacks began in the early afternoon, when regime artillery fired at least five chlorine shells at HTS positions in the village of Kabana, located in an area of the Jabal al-Akrad region and bordering Idlib province in northwestern Syria. Assad has been waging more aggressive attacks in Idlib over the last few weeks.
“Five helicopters then began to throw explosive barrel bombs to break [down the HTS defenses],” he said, adding that Russian bombers were present for the attacks, doing reconnaissance work. “A Russian Tupolev Tu-160 [bomber] was photographing the area.”
Multiple sources in Syria and Western observers of the conflict note that Russia appears to have telegraphed the attack itself in a tweet last week, warning that its Ministry of Defense had evidence that Al-Qaeda was planning a chemical attack on itself in an effort to frame Russia for a war crime. Russia has used such “false flag” claims in the past to cast doubt on rebel claims of the use of such weapons, frequently arguing that chemical weapons are used by the opposition to frame the Russians and the Syrian government for attacks, according to a Western intelligence official working from an embassy in the Middle East.
“People know the regime is coming for this area and are beginning to panic.”
“When they tweeted about a potential false flag operation involving chemical weapons and HTS, it was clear they were setting the stage to use them in the hopes it would go without a response from the Americans,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Two days after the tweet, witnesses said the attack took place.
Analysts describe the airstrikes as an effort to soften up the defenses of the rebel-held province of Idlib, the last such stronghold. Syrian opposition officials, as well as the humanitarian group the White Helmets, claim that regime elements conducted a chlorine gas bombing of positions held by HTS, and Medium has confirmed blood samples from at least five sickened fighters and civilians were collected and passed to Western intelligence services as evidence of war crimes. HTS holds positions about 30 miles outside of the key Russian military base in Syria along the borders of the Latakia and Idlib provinces.
The Western intelligence official attributed the delay in obtaining the blood samples to the fraught relationship between Western nations and HTS, which is widely designated as a terrorist organization. “Obviously we do not have direct contact with HTS, which greatly limits the ability of aid workers and journalists in the areas they control in Latakia,” said the official.
The official said that because the area in question is completely controlled by HTS, getting proper information out from the scene of the attack has been complicated. “The opposition and White Helmets also are reluctant to make a large-scale announcement because they don’t have much control over information coming out of that area… Relations between HTS and the rest of the rebels are very tense as the regime and Russia continue to push to crush the last pockets of the revolution.”
The reluctance to speak openly about the incident extended to the leadership of the White Helmets, whose top official, Raed al-Saleh, told Medium that some data had been collected but the group would not comment further at this time.
While the Trump administration has confronted Russia and the Assad regime for war crimes before — in April 2017 it conducted limit airstrikes in response to a similar attack — Syrian opposition members fear that, given the U.S.’s preoccupation with Iran, they could be left to fend for themselves.
“U.S. troops are already being very quiet along the joint patrol areas,” said a commander with the Syrian Democratic Forces who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The humanitarian stakes in Idlib are enormous. Syrian opposition leaders have warned that Idlib contains more than a million civilians displaced from other parts of Syria, as well as a slew of rebel groups — from U.S.-backed allies to small units of ISIS remnants — as well as the presence of Al-Qaeda via the HTS organization.
“It’s very crowded and very dangerous right now. People know the regime is coming for this area and are beginning to panic, which is why, of course, they’re using chemical weapons, to increase fear,” the Western official said.