By Ty Joplin
As the Syrian regime, backed by Russian airpower, prepare to launch what could be the last major battle against rebels, both sides are already blaming each other for any prospective chemical attack.
Russian and U.S. officials have traded accusation that each side is preparing for deadly nerve agents to be dropped on civilians around Idlib in the coming days. It has become standard operating procedure in Syria to blame the other side for chemical attacks; dozens have happened throughout the war, perpetrated by both sides, and it is likely they will be used against in Idlib.
Behind the threats and claims of imminent false flag operations, the U.S. and Russia are looking to affirm the legitimacy of their presence in Syria and in the region more broadly: Russia is positioning itself to be the sole, legitimate world power protecting Syria, while the U.S. is framing itself as the only real defender of human rights and international laws.
Inside the Competing Narratives
Igor Konashenkov (Wikipedia)
In preparation for the Idlib offensive, Russian propaganda outlets have officially accused the White Helmets, al Qaeda, and/or Ahrar al-Sham of coordinating a chemical attack that would justify an anti-Assad military intervention from the U.S. and U.K.
Each outlet varies slightly on the narrative they seek to propagate, but they all follow a basic formula: chemical weapons have been transferred to various rebel groups, and will be used in either the town of Kafr Zita or Saraqib or somewhere else in Idlib province. The U.S. and U.K. will then use the gas attack as a pretext to militarily intervene into Idlib against Assad, Russia and Iran.
Both Kafr Zita and Saraqib have been the site of chemical attacks in the past.
The Russian Embassy in the U.K. tweeted a very specific theory as to exactly how the chemical attack will be staged and who will do it:
Russia-backed Anna News wrote the following in a report detailing how they think the chemical attack will go down:
“The Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the United States, Britain and France intend to launch a new missile strike on Syria after the Syrian opposition forces will make a provocation with chemical weapons in the province of Idlib. According to the official representative of the ministry, Major-General Igor Konashenkov, for this very purpose, USS guided missile destroyer Sullivans arrived to the Persian Gulf a few days ago with 56 cruise missiles onboard.”
The most outspoken Russian official blaming the U.S. and U.K. for any possible future chemical attack is Igor Konashenkov, the spokesperson for Russia’s Ministry of Defense.
According to various Russian state outlets including RT, “Igor Konashenkov said the operation is planned to unfold in the village of Kafr Zita in Syria’s northwestern Hama Province.”
“The attack would be used as a pretext for US, UK and French airstrikes on Syrian targets,” Konashenkov added.
A crucial part of Konashenkov’s story is the USS The Sullivans, a destroyer he claims has been deployed to wait for the chemical attack and pounce on Syria with cruise missiles. Another similar theory is being touted by Alexei Tsygankov, a Major-General in the Russian army who heads the Russian Center for Reconciliation:
“‘According to information received by the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Warring Parties in Syria from independent sources located in the province of Idlib, a large shipment of toxic substances, accompanied by eight representatives of the White Helmets, was delivered from the village of Afs to the settlement of Saraqib, to a warehouse used by the militants from the Ahrar al-Sham group to store weapons and fuel supplies. They were met by two high-ranking commanders from the above-mentioned illegal armed group,’ Tsygankov said at a daily briefing.”
Actual evidence for any of these claims have not been released and likely will not be, though the message is clear: any upcoming chemical attack should be blamed on the U.S., U.K. and the White Helmets, not Russia or Assad.
The White Helmets are a civilian emergency response organization that provides medical aid and rescues though injured from attacks. Russia and Assad falsely claim the White Helmets are either part of or partners with al Qaeda, which implicates the U.S. and U.K. as they are major supporters of the group.
John Bolton (AFP/FILE)
For its part, the U.S.’ main voice blaming Russia and Syria for any future chemical attack is National Security Advisor John Bolton, though he is less specific.
According to Bloomberg, “Tensions between the nuclear powers [Russia and the U.S.] flared after National Security Adviser John Bolton told his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, that the U.S. has information Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be preparing to use chemical weapons to recapture the northwestern province of Idlib from rebels.”
Although Bolton has not discussed the specific of the intelligence he allegedly has, he has used it to make direct threats to Syria and Russia.
"Just so there's no confusion here,” Bolton said at a press conference, “if the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons we will respond very strongly and they really ought to think about this a long time.”
The Blame Game, Explained
By preemptively blaming each other, Russia and the U.S. are engaging in a kind of information war before the battle for Idlib physically begins.
The way they are framing each other for potential gas attack can be understood more broadly as well: both sides aren’t just talking about chemical weapons, they are talking about legitimacy.
Russia is claiming itself as the sole legitimate protector of Syrian sovereignty in the international community.
The U.S. is positioning itself to justify another singular counter-attack if such a gas attack is to happen, looking to preserve U.S. image as an effective protector of human rights and international laws forbidding chemical weapons usage.
On the ground in Idlib, three million Syrian civilians are waiting for the offensive to begin.
John Ging, the U.N.'s director of humanitarian operations said that the battle for Idlib “has the potential to create a humanitarian emergency at a scale not yet seen.” So far, the U.N. has witnessed “a further serious deterioration of the humanitarian situation," with bombings that have indiscriminately killed civilians.