The U.S. State Department has now shot down claims by Russia and the Assad regime that anti-Assad rebel forces used chemical weapons on the battlefield in late November. As the State Department noted, this finding confirms suspicions that Moscow and Damascus are seeking an excuse to violate the tenuous ceasefire in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib.
The State Department revealed that pro-Assad forces “likely used teargas against civilians in Aleppo on November 24,” an incident that became the basis for false allegations of a chlorine attack. The alleged chlorine attack later served as a pretext for military action by the Russian air force, with a Russian general claiming the airstrikes had targeted rebel artillery that employed chemical munitions. The airstrikes were the first in the vicinity of Aleppo since mid-September and raise troubling questions about the long-term viability of September’s Idlib ceasefire agreement between opposition and pro-regime forces.
Citing “credible” – though currently unspecified – information, the State Department strongly pushed back against the Russian and pro-Assad narrative. Its statement goes on to warn Russia and the Assad regime against tampering with the alleged attack site, which remains under their control, and calls for an impartial United Nations-led inquiry into the matter.
Virtually since the start of Russia’s intervention in Syria, brazen prevarications have been a consistent feature of its information campaign, such as in August of this year when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the UN and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) of conspiring to conduct false-flag operations in order to disadvantage Russia.
If Moscow and Damascus are attempting to lay the political groundwork for a wider military offensive, the U.S. must warn them of the potential consequences of another atrocity-laden offensive. Anything less could serve to embolden America’s adversaries in Syria by allowing them to think Idlib is up for grabs. Thus, in addition to supporting a full and transparent investigation by the OPCW, Washington should consider options such as targeting what remains of the regime’s air force, further tightening economic sanctions, or even seizing targets of opportunity such as the strategically vital border crossing at Abu Kamal.
It appears that Russia and Assad are once again probing American resolve in Syria. If the administration responds with demonstrable clarity, it will bolster its own credibility in the region. If, by contrast, this episode leads to little more than pro-forma diplomatic bluster, Russia and the Assad regime may conclude that they have free license to act. Such an outcome could not only spell disaster for the roughly three million people trapped in Idlib, but it would set back the U.S. position as a credible powerbroker in Syria as well.
Andrew Gabel is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @Andrew_B_Gabel. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.