As reported yesterday, Western countries including the US accused Assad’s armed forces for the chemical attack, which choked scores of people to death in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in a rebel-held area of northern Syria hit by government air strikes. While Washington said it believed the deaths were caused by sarin nerve gas dropped by Syrian aircraft, Moscow offered an alternative explanation, claiming the poison gas had leaked from a rebel chemical weapons depot struck by Syrian bombs.
The strike, which was launched midday Tuesday, targeted a major rebel ammunition depot east of the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement. The warehouse was used to both produce and store shells containing toxic gas, Konashenkov said. The shells were delivered to Iraq and repeatedly used there, he added, pointing out that both Iraq and international organizations have confirmed the use of such weapons by militants.
The same chemical munitions were used by militants in Aleppo, where Russian military experts took samples in late 2016, Konashenkov said. The Defense Ministry has confirmed this information as “fully objective and verified,” Konashenkov added.
According to the statement, Khan Sheikhoun civilians, who recently suffered a chemical attack, displayed identical symptoms to those of Aleppo chemical attack victims.
Naturally, Syrian rebels disagreed: Hasan Haj Ali, rebel commander of the Free Idlib Army rebel group, and quoted by Reuters called the Russian statement a “lie”.
“Everyone saw the plane while it was bombing with gas,” he told Reuters from northwestern Syria. “Likewise, all the civilians in the area know that there are no military positions there, or places for the manufacture (of weapons). The various factions of the opposition are not capable of producing these substances.”
The incident is the first time Washington has accused Assad of using sarin since 2013, when hundreds of people died in an attack on a Damascus suburb. At that time, Washington said Assad had crossed a “red line” set by then-President Barack Obama. Back then Obama threatened an air campaign to topple Assad but called it off at the last minute after the Syrian leader agreed to give up his chemical arsenal under a deal brokered by Moscow, a decision which Trump has long said proved Obama’s weakness.
The latest incident, which comes at a very odd time - just days after the White House it will no longer pursue the ouster of Assad, cementing the Syrian leader’s resolve not to do anything to infuriate the US administration - means Trump is faced with the same dilemma that faced his predecessor: whether to openly challenge Moscow and risk deep involvement in a Middle East war by seeking to punish Assad for using banned weapons, or compromise and accept the Syrian leader remaining in power at the risk of looking weak.
As reported last night, Trump described Tuesday’s incident as “heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime”, but also faulted Obama for having failed to enforce the red line four years ago. Obama’s spokesman declined to comment. Washington, Paris and London have drawn up a draft U.N. Security Council statement condemning the attack and demanding an investigation. Russia has the power to veto it, as it has done to block all previous resolutions that would harm Assad.
As a result, all eyes will now be on Trump’s response.
As Reuters puts it, “Trump’s response to a diplomatic confrontation with Moscow will be closely watched at home because of accusations by his political opponents that he is too supportive of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has previously said the United States and Russia should work more closely in Syria to fight against Islamic State.”
Should Trump engage, devolving relations between Russia and the US to a level last seen under the Obama administration, it will be interesting to watch the justification provided by the “Russia-hacking” conspiracy theorists.
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