WASHINGTON — US officials suspect that Russia operated a drone and military aircraft that surveyed and struck a Syrian hospital treating victims of the chemical attack that prompted US airstrikes on a Syrian airfield days later, two US officials told BuzzFeed News on Friday.
Military officials suspect that someone turned off the camera onboard the Russian unmanned drone just before the strike on the hospital Tuesday, effectively turning a blind eye to the attack. The officials did not make clear how the US was able to determine when the drone’s camera was recording.
The assessment that Russia may have been behind the hospital attack, if accurate, would be the first evidence that Russian pilots stationed in Syria may have been aware of the attack carried out by Syrian planes. The Syrian aircraft were among the 20 aircraft destroyed by the US strike campaign on Thursday night, according to the Pentagon. US radar tracked the Russian plane taking off and hitting the hospital, one of the US officials told BuzzFeed News. US officials believe the attack on the hospital may have been an attempt to destroy evidence of the sarin gas attack.
Since the April 4 sarin nerve agent attack that killed at least 70 people and injured hundreds more, the United States has made clear that it is holding Russia at least in some measure responsible. Members of the Trump administration have said publicly that Russia’s inability to stop their ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from launching an attack, after continuing to back him militarily, falls on them.
Just hours after two US destroyers — the USS Porter and USS Ross — launched 59 Tomahawk missiles toward the al-Shayrat air base in Homs, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: "Clearly Russia has failed in its responsibility. Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent.” Tillerson travels to Moscow Tuesday.
If the US suspicions are proved true, it could suggest that far from monitoring Syria’s destruction of its chemical weapons, as Russia said it would do in a 2013 agreement with the United States, Moscow was instead aware that the Syrian government continued to stock chemical weapons.
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, told a UN Security Council meeting Friday that the US is “prepared to do more” in Syria. She did not clarify what actions were on the table, though Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin later told reporters that new economic sanctions were being prepared.
Two US military officials who briefed reporters Friday about the US strike on al-Shayrat air base said that they believe the Syrian military attack happened around 6:50 am local time in Khan Shaykhun when an ordnance landed in the middle of a road, allowing sarin nerve agent to spread through the village. By 7 am evidence of victims emerged, the officials said. Those who survived went to the nearest hospital.
As victims began pouring into what the officials said was clearly a hospital, a Russian-made UAV went up over the hospital and began filming. Five hours after the sarin attack, the camera switched off and a Russian-made aircraft struck the hospital. The two military officials said that it was unclear whether the aircraft were Russian or Syrian as the Syrians buy Russian-made aircraft. But the US official said the intelligence available pointed toward Russia. It is unclear what damage was inflicted on the hospital in the strike.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense has said since the Syrian attack hit "workshops, which produced chemical warfare munitions" rather than dropping chemical weapons itself.
“This is patterned behavior. The Russians have consistently conducted precise airstrikes targeting civilian infrastructure and hospital in particular, for example in Aleppo,” Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, told BuzzFeed News.
The two US military officials who briefed the press said Friday they could not rule out that the Russians participated in or knew about the sarin gas attack that spurred a US strike, saying they would investigate any information that points toward Russian involvement.
“We have no knowledge” of that, one of the senior military officials said. But the Pentagon would “investigate any information that could lead in that direction,” the official said.
Between twelve and 100 Russian personnel and aircraft were at the base, allowing the Russians to know every time a Syrian aircraft took off for a mission. But US officials said they had no definitive evidence that Russia had prior knowledge of Tuesday’s attack.
The US military, which notified the Russians beforehand that a military operation would be happening at that military base, also could not say whether the Russians notified their Syrian allies ahead of the bombardment. The US military said it had no evidence of either the Russians or the Syrians moving personnel or equipment off the base in the hours before the US military launched its missiles, around 840 p.m. EST.
“It is implied,” one of the US military officials said.