A report on Monday claimed that U.S. intelligence has determined that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has already made a decision to use chemical weapons against enemy positions in Idlib as his forces, combined with Russian airpower, attack the last rebel stronghold following seven years of civil war.
The Wall Street Journal [source], citing unnamed intelligence sources, even noted the type of gas Assad has allegedly chosen: Chlorine gas, which was first used in World War I and has the effect of an asphyxiation compound.
In addition, according to sources who spoke to the WSJ, President Donald Trump has also reportedly threatened to intervene militarily with a massive attack against the Assad regime if he uses gas and other tactics that result in a massacre. U.S. officials and diplomats are concerned about the extensive loss of life among the civilian population, especially.
There are believed to be about 3 million people in and around Idlib, which is an important agricultural region for Syrian. There is estimated to be about 70,000 anti-Assad regime fighters there, which Damascus considers to be terrorists.
Thus far, international diplomatic efforts to persuade Syria, Russia, and Iran from averting a major offensive have failed as all three sense that the rebel faction is on the verge of defeat after trying for years to forcefully remove Assad from power. Both Russia and Syria have increased air attacks and thousands of civilians have been evacuated to parts of Syria controlled by the government.
The Pentagon is currently drawing up military options for the president, but he has not yet decided on a course of action or even what would trigger a response beyond the use of poison gas.
Importantly, the president has also not yet decided if he would order the targeting of Russian and Iranian forces.
“We haven’t said that the U.S. would use the military in response to an offensive,” one senior administration official told the paper. “We have political tools at our disposal, we have economic tools at our disposal. There are a number of different ways we could respond if Assad were to take that reckless, dangerous step.”
Last week, Trump hardened his position. Initially, he said the use of chemical weapons was a red line, but in an interview with The Daily Caller, he hinted that he might consider military action if the Syria/Russia/Iran coalition try to retake Idlib by force.
“By my putting out that message I think maybe it’s going to send a signal,” Trump said. “I mean we’re going to see, but it’s a terrible thing.”
While the Trump administration and the international community have been appealing to the Syrian regime for restraint, warplanes and helicopters from Syria and Russia have nonetheless conducted airstrikes against some suspected rebel positions in Idlib and Hama provinces that killed at least two dozen civilians.
Analysis: Last week the Russian government, citing its own intelligence, claimed that rebels might stage a chemical attack just to draw in the United States and its allies on their side. That is a plausible strategy, of course. But just because it seems plausible doesn’t make it accurate.
As for the U.S. intelligence leaked to the WSJ indicating that Assad has already made the decision to use chemical weapons, that would have to be based on something much more than pure speculation: Hard evidence, such as the interception of an electronic communication from Assad to field commanders or from Russian communiques inside Syria to the Kremlin, perhaps. There could even be human intelligence (HUMINT) sources informing Israeli or other allied Arab sources in the region, who have then informed U.S. and Western intelligence. It’s hard to know where the information has come from.
To what end, however? What would be the point of planting false information in the American media? A warning to Russia, Iran, and Syria?
If the Trump administration has decided to become more deeply involved in the Syrian conflict because doing so fulfills some administration objective, then leaking this claim provides the White House with the cover to act. However, what would change the president’s mind?
Not long ago, according to published reports, Trump was looking for the exit in Syria. He has obviously been persuaded by his national security team to remain engaged there but to the extent of attacking Russian forces? That doesn’t seem likely or in the president’s policy interests, as he has said repeatedly — according to reports — that he would rather improve relations with Moscow.
Now, dealing with Iran is something else entirely. Attacking Iranian forces inside Syrian may trigger a military response of some sort from Tehran, which would, in turn, lead to a larger, more destructive response from Washington. And destabilizing the Iranian regime most certainly is a Trump administration policy objective.
As we have noted [source], U.S. and Russian forces operating on opposite sides of a conflict and in such close proximity dramatically increases the chance for a mistake or miscalculation. Maybe this leak was designed as a ‘heads-up’ to Moscow that U.S. action is a foregone conclusion.