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The Russian government is warning of a staged gas attack by Syrian rebels in Idlib. Experts doubt the validity of that information, however, and see the move as a telltale sign of desperation in Moscow.
Russia's Ministry of Defense issued a warning over the weekend to the international community: Members of the extremist militant group Levant Liberation Committee — also known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — are planning to stage a chemical attack to blame on the Syrian government.
According to Russian ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov, the rebel group is planning to use the incident to further smear President Bashar Assad's regime in the eyes of world public opinion. The rebels are rumored have already brought several containers of chlorine to a village near the town of Jisr al-Shugur and hired a foreign company to help them prepare for the attack.
Moscow claims that in the staged incident, some of the perpetrators would dress up as members of the White Helmets in order to rescue supposed victims in the aftermath.
According to Konashenkov, the strategy of the provocation is obvious: The rebels want to give the United States, United Kingdom and France a reason to attack targets of the Syrian government with airstrikes.
A rebel-staged chemical attack: 'Mere allegations'
The supposed foresight of the Russian Ministry of Defense did not remain unchallenged for long. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is associated with the Syrian rebels, described the warnings from Moscow as "lies."
"These are mere allegations designed to launch the battle for Idlib," the organization's director, Rami Abdel-Rahman, was quoted in the media as saying. He contends that the chlorine was supplied for a entirely different reason. "The substance is provided from time to time so that the local waterworks can sterilize the water," Abdel-Rahman said.
Russians losing faith in Assad?
In all the reporting surrounding Moscow's announcement, the London-based online media outlet Al-Araby Al-Jadeed asked the simple question: Since when does the Russian military allow acts of terrorism to take place that they know about in advance?
Furthermore, why is the Kremlin going public with such a warning at all, when it is likely that all those involved in the conflict, including representatives of international organizations, are already focused on Syria?
"The Russians may also lack confidence in the Assad regime," said Elias Perabo of the Adopt a Revolution initiative, which is affiliated with Syria's opposition movement. In an interview with DW, Perabo argued that Moscow was not sure that the Assad government would actually refrain from using chemical weapons. "In the past, 34 gas attacks have been investigated by UN inspectors. The regime was blamed for 28," he said. "They have been not only carried out with chlorine but also sarin and other substances."
One of the four so-called de-escalation zones, which were set up to protect civilians in the country's ongoing civil war, is located in Idlib. The area is also home to armed rebel strongholds, especially the Nusrah Front.
The element of psychological warfare
The Nusra Front was heavily attacked by the government in the early days of August, but it was not completely defeated: The rebels continue to fight back. This, Parebo believes, could be a reason for the Assad regime to deploy chemical weapons.
Toxic gas kills very quickly, said Parebo. "The operations prove to people that they are not safe anywhere — not even in bunkers," he said. As the gas also penetrates downwards, it can reach people in shelters, fueling the public perception that people are defenseless against it. The threat of chemical weapons thus has an enormous psychological effect — it can be particularly demoralizing to the civilian population, Parebo said.
Military, there is little strategic value in waging chemical warfare from the point of view of the Assad government, yet it has not suffered significant consequences for its alleged use of the weapons. Former US President Barack Obama’s warning in the summer of 2013 that Assad was crossing a "red line" after his military's suspected use of chemical weapons ultimately had no consequences.
Warnings from Washington
Now, however, US National Security Adviser John Bolton has also warned the Assad government against using chemical weapons. If this were to happen, Bolton cautioned Damascus that they would see Washington "respond very strongly." However, there has not yet been an official warning from the White House.
The US government has been operating in Syria for years, but many of its actions there have taken place away from public view. A confrontation with the Assad government, for example, could quickly lead to a direct clash with Russian soldiers aiding Syrian forces. Such a scenario is something Obama and his successor, Donald Trump, have avoided.
To prevent the future use of chemical weapons, Perabo believes the US and its allies must be far more strict with Assad and Russia. It must be made very clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin that there will be no money for reconstruction in Syria in the event of further chemical weapons use, he said.
"Any use of weapons of mass destruction and poison gas must be punished, regardless of who committed it," Perabo said. "As long as Russia refuses to provide information, no partnership can be established with the country."