Several Russian media outlets, nearly simultaneously, began broadcasting “breaking news” warnings claiming that rebels occupying the last anti-government stronghold in Idlib Province, Syria, are preparing to stage chemical weapons attacks in order to blame them on the Syrian government.
Russia’s Sputnik News reported, based on official Moscow sources:
According to the information received from inhabitants of Idlib province, militants are now filming a staged provocation in the city of Jisr al-Shugur, where “chemical weapons” are depicted as being used by the Syrian army against civilians. The film crews of several Middle Eastern TV channels arrived in Jisr al-Shugur in the morning, as well as the regional affiliate of one of the main American television news networks”, the Reconciliation Center said.
The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that the anti-Assad rebels were preparing “fake footage of chemical attacks,” while the Russian Center for Syrian Reconciliation announced that the “fake footage of chemical attacks” was expected to be delivered to various TV channels and Western journalists before the end of the day Tuesday.
Official Russian military sources report that two containers with chlorine-based toxic substance Jisr al-Shugur, a key al-Qaeda-held city in Idlib Province.
The Russian MoD said, per Sputnik:
The plot envisages staged scenes showing ‘activists’ of the Civil Defence (“White Helmets”) ‘helping’ the residents of Jisr al-Shughur after the Syrian army allegedly used the so-called barrel bombs with poisonous substances,” the center said.
Russian network RT added:
Several Middle East TV channels and a local branch of a leading US news channel have been sent to the city of Jisr al-Shughur in Syria’s Idlib governorate to produce the footage needed for the provocation.
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal confirmed Tuesday that the Trump administration is now having discussions with the U.K. and France regarding plans for a potential third round of coordinated strikes against Syria if regime forces utilize chemical weapons during the pending assault on Idlib.
The Russian MoD’s claims of a pending staged “chemical provocation’ were criticized by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton. “That has to be, in the history of propaganda in the 20th and 21st centuries, one of the most outrageous claims that I can think of,” he said.
Analysis: As we reported Monday, 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 a backdrop to Russia’s allegations, Syrian civilians have begun staging what appear to be theatrics given the nature of the chemical weapon reportedly being considered for use. Qatar-based Al Jazeera reported last week that residents in and around Idlib are assembling makeshift ‘gas masks’ consisting of a clear plastic hood and attached paper cup filter with charcoal and cotton as a respirator.
Chemical attack imminent? Syrians are turning charcoal and cotton into homemade masks. pic.twitter.com/xY88okS8c5
— AJ+ (@ajplus) September 7, 2018
Chlorine gas, which is the chemical weapon most mentioned, is asphyxiating, but blocking it with makeshift masks of the type being assembled does not seem realistic. Also, if nerve gas is used as it has been in the past, it is absorbed through the skin, making such masks worthless.
Clearly, the armed groups occupying Idlib are attempting to send the message that they believe chemical weapons will indeed be used at some point, by someone other than them.
What’s less clear is why the U.S. would ignore a staged attack.
Russia, Syria, and Iran are all aware that the U.S. is planning to strike Syrian targets, in conjunction with allies, if chemical weapons are used against civilians; why would Moscow and Damascus seek to purposely draw in the U.S., which would complicate if not thwart their efforts to retake Idlib?
If we were to hazard an estimate, it makes more sense for the rebels to stage a chemical attack than it does for the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons knowing that doing so will provoke a response.
The Trump administration and the Pentagon have to know that, too. So if a staged attack takes place and the U.S. launches counterstrikes anyway, that means the White House is pursuing a policy objective that is not yet clear.