This week, Russia started briefing against the US military’s response to a chemical attack in Syria that Moscow claims to know to be a false flag, staged by anti-government militias. And it hasn’t even happened yet.
If that doesn't make a whole lot of sense to you, don't worry — it doesn't make sense. Let's break it down, starting with what Russia has actually said.
“This provocation with the participation of the White Helmets, imitating the rescue of those affected by chemical weapons, is planned with the active participation of the British special services and should serve as an occasion for the US, Britain and France to inflict another missile and aircraft strike on the state objects of Syria,” the Russian Ministry of Defence said in a Facebook statement on Aug. 25.
The Russian Embassy of the US was more blunt, posting on its official Facebook that same day, “The Russian Defense Ministry has accused the United States, the United Kingdom and France of preparing to carry out new strikes against Syria under the pretext of chemical weapons use by Syrian government forces.”
However bizarre these statements may seem, they actually fit into a pattern that has emerged during the seven-year Syrian civil war: Civilians are killed by chemical weapons, the attack is condemned internationally, independent observers state they believe the Syrian government is responsible, and Western nations then often launch retaliatory airstrikes. Added to the mix are highly vocal pro-Assad and Russian trolls, who amplify the false flag narrative after (or sometimes before) each attack.
Only this time, Syria’s ally Russia seems to be trying to get ahead of the game by briefing against the possibility of any US airstrikes before the alleged chemical attack that would trigger the strikes has even taken place.
Russian officials even named a possible location: a village in Idlib, a province in Syria’s northwest and one of the remaining rebel-held areas, called Kafr Zayta.
On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at a press conference in Saudi Arabia, said the West was "actively heating up" the idea of a "so-called planned chemical attack by the [Syrian] government," AFP reported. He also gave the clearest indication yet that a government offensive was imminent, confirming speculation by international observers who have noted significant troop movements in the past three weeks.
He was building on the comments of other officials for the past week. “We warn the United States and its allies against new reckless moves," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian news channel Sputnik on Aug. 25. He went on to suggest "the scenario of a gross provocation and subsequent strikes [on Syria] was very likely."
The volume was increased the following day, when Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov told the Russian news agency TASS that "the interested extra-regional forces are once again preparing major provocations in Syria using poisonous substances to severely destabilize the situation."
"To carry out the alleged 'chemical attack' in the city of Jisr al-Shughur in the province of Idlib, militants from the Tahrir al-Sham group [affiliated with the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda] had delivered eight tankers with chlorine … to a village a few kilometers from Jisr al-Shughur," Konashenkov said.
The Russian Defense Ministry statement also claimed that a US destroyer, USS The Sullivans, has moved into the Persian Gulf in preparation for the strikes, and that British special services had helped train the militants who would allegedly be carrying out the false-flag attack.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence did not comment on its Russian counterpart’s Facebook claim of “British special services” involvement, and a source told BuzzFeed News it was policy to neither confirm nor deny special forces movements.
As the Russian officials’ remarks spread, covered by Russian outlets TASS and Sputnik, as well as PressTV of Iran (which supports the Syrian regime in the civil war through its proxies), they fed the trolls labeling chemical attacks as false flags and those involved as actors or terrorists — or both.
But crucially always amplifying the message. A famous target for the pro-Russian, pro-Assad trolls has always been the White Helmets (a search and rescue group also known as the Syria Civil Defence, loathed by Assad and his government) who according to Russian defense officials were actively helping Idlib militants to prepare for the fake attack.
In response to the escalating rhetoric, a NATO spokesperson told BuzzFeed News they would “not speculate on hypothetical situations.”
NATO Acting Deputy Spokesperson Dylan White, in further remarks to BuzzFeed News, said, “What I can say is that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, and NATO demands that all perpetrators be held accountable.”
He continued: “Since the start of the conflict, the Syrian regime has repeatedly used chemical weapons against its own people. These barbaric attacks have contributed to appalling human suffering. They also violate multiple UN Security Council Resolutions, as well as the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria ratified in 2013. NATO is not present in Syria, but we support the efforts of the United Nations to achieve a lasting political resolution to the conflict.”
Numerous chemical attacks have been documented by international observers, such as the United Nations, in the course of the war. Earlier this year the chemical attack on Douma, which killed at least 45, saw the US launch 105 strikes against pro-government forces.
President Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton warned on Aug. 22 the US would act “very strongly” in the case of a chemical attack by the Syrian government on its own people. To add to the bizarre situation, Bolton’s remarks were reported by RT, quoting a pro-Assad Syrian MP, as having called for al-Qaeda to “stage more chemical attacks.”
On Monday, in response to the Russian comments, the Pentagon’s Defense Department spokesperson Eric Pahon told Task & Purpose: “Russian reports of a US military buildup in the Eastern Med are nothing more than propaganda. It’s not true.”
“We also underline our concern at the potential for further — and illegal — use of chemical weapons,” Pahon said.
He didn’t want to be drawn on how the US would act in the case of an attack — Trump infamously ordered a strike in 2017 after the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack, which killed 86 people including 27 children — but he did note that the Pentagon would be ready to act.
Additional reporting by Mitch Prothero.