Bashar al Assad’s Syrian regime, bolstered by Russian and Iranian forces, is currently preparing to mount an offensive against Idlib, the last remaining major rebel stronghold in the nation, prompting a series of statements and warnings from U.S. officials, and perhaps most telling, a slurry of Russian propaganda efforts aiming to frame the impending battle in a very specific way.
“President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province,” President Trump wrote on Twitter this week. “The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!”
President Trump isn’t the only U.S. official to recently call on Russian and Iranian forces to reconsider their participation in the Syrian civil war — a conflict the U.S. has had a hand in as well, supporting Syrian Democratic Forces directly in their fight against the Islamic State and indirectly in their fight against Assad. On a few occasions, the United States has taken direct kinetic action against Assad controlled assets, but in each case were a retaliatory strike following the dictator’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in his fight to regain control over rebel held territory.
In both instances, Russia attempted to advance the narrative that the chemical weapon attacks had been staged by the United States or other allied parties in order to justify military action against Assad. However, in both instances, the United States responded with extremely limited strikes, engaging only air fields and facilities tied to the development or use of chemical weapons, and in both cases, they offered advanced warning by way of Russian channels; hardly the behavior of a nation that’s looking for an excuse to go to war. However, in both instances, the international press has failed to hold Russia accountable for their statements regarding Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Now, as the offensive to retake Idlib is about to begin, Russia is once again setting the stage for deniability, suggesting first that America, and now that a volunteer group called the “White Helmets” are planning a chemical attack against Syrian civilians they hope to blame on Assad’s forces.
In the past, when chemical weapons were deployed to aid in Assad’s takeover of rebel held territory, Russia has even accused the rebels of attacking themselves with the chemical weapons to garner international sympathy, despite lacking the technical ability to produce chemical weapons or the supply chain required to procure them. Most tellingly, chemical weapons have only been used against rebels and civilians as Assad has retaken territory, begging the question: if the rebels had chemical weapons in this fight they’re losing, wouldn’t they use them on their enemies instead of themselves?
Russia seems aware of the legitimacy behind those arguments, so they’ve shifted the narrative first to the United States staging the chemical attacks as an excuse to go to war (which is no longer viable as the U.S. has now proven twice over that it would prefer avoiding another war), and now, to the White Helmets. While the group maintains questionable ties to a number of extremist organizations, there seems little evidence to support the idea that the White Helmets would pursue such a course of action, or even what their motive may be.
Sputnik and RT, both Kremlin owned media outlets, have released stories in the past week outlining plans for a White Helmet led staged chemical attack and a U.S. led staged chemical attack in Syria, which raises some serious concerns that an attack may well be forthcoming. The last time Russian war planes supported Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, they released similar stories in the days leading up to the attack. The intent, it would seem, is to plant the seeds of conspiracy before the attack takes place, so when reports begin to pour out of Idlib of civilians dying gruesome deaths by way of chemical weapons, Russia can point to one of these previous stories as evidence that they knew something was afoot.
“This is textbook,” Jennifer Cafarella, a senior intelligence planner at the Institute for the Study of War, said of the headlines. “They have done this consistently in the lead up to the use of chemical weapons. So I think it’s a serious possibility that they will use it again. It is incredibly conniving.”
While the first in the fight are often referred to as “the tip of the spear,” it would seem that Russia now sees their information operations as the first wave of any combat operation. Understanding Russia’s motus operandi means, in no uncertain terms, that the offensive against Idlib has already begun, even if the bullets aren’t flying yet.