US accusations over chemical attack crucial for Idlib battle

At stake is the future of Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold in Syria and a constant reminder to Syrian President Bashar Assad that his war is yet to be won.
Sunday 16/12/2018
Fear tactics. Children try improvised gas masks in their home in Binnish in Syria’s Idlib province, last September.(AFP)
Fear tactics. Children try improvised gas masks in their home in Binnish in Syria’s Idlib province, last September.(AFP)

TUNIS - The United States issued a stinging rebuttal to Syria’s claim of having suffered a chemical attack on the loyalist city of Aleppo, laying the blame instead on Damascus and Moscow for staging the attack.

Chemical weapons have been an almost constant feature of Syria’s seven years of civil war, with various sides in the conflict accusing others of having resorted to their use. However, only the Islamic State and the Syrian government have been found responsible by UN investigators for deployment of chemical weapons.

Attribution for an attack in November is clouded. Both Moscow and Damascus accused Idlib’s rebels of carrying out the attack but the United States charged that Russia and Syria staged it.

Which chemical was used in the Aleppo attack is also unclear. Syrian authorities said rebels deployed chlorine gas in the city. However, the Americans said tear gas was used. While some chemical weapons, such as chlorine gas, remain legal, nerve agents of all types are strictly prohibited.

The repercussions of the November attack could prove critical. At stake is the future of Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold in Syria and a constant reminder to Syrian President Bashar Assad that his war is yet to be won.

Idlib, protected by a ceasefire agreed between Turkey and Russia, stands as a tangible repudiation of Assad’s desire to retake “every inch” of Syria. Turkey remains highly active in Idlib and is attempting to form several of its militias into a single unit to defend the country’s border.

Despite Turkey’s presence in the province, pro-regime forces continued to subject Idlib to a near constant artillery barrage in recent months. After the recent alleged chemical attack in Aleppo, Moscow joined the attack, with Russian warplanes striking rebel-held areas in the province, after first warning Turkey.

Syrian government forces have a record of using chemical weapons against their own population, as well as claiming such attacks were carried out by rebel forces. Most notable was the April deployment of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Duma, where 70 people died.

Columb Strack, a principal Middle East and North Africa analyst at IHS Market, said: “It’s entirely possible that the Syrian government conducted this attack to undermine Turkey’s efforts to unite the Syrian opposition and to sabotage the current ceasefire.

“It’s equally plausible that the attack was carried out by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which are violently resisting attempts by the Turkish army to form a unified Syrian opposition and have clearly demonstrated intent to derail the Sochi agreement.”

“We recorded several incidents of HTS engaging government forces with artillery from the Khan Tuman area (where the suspected chemical shells were fired from) in the weeks leading up to the November 24 attack and previous incidents suggest that HTS has the capability to use chemical agents, including chlorine, as a weapon,” he said.

While both explanations may be plausible, the US charge of Russia having participated in the attack has confused many. The statement said the United States has information indicating Russian as well as Syrian personnel were involved in the attack and “believes that both countries are using it as an opportunity to undermine confidence in the ceasefire in Idlib.”

“Russia has been a driving force behind the Idlib ceasefire. It has no obvious motivation for sabotaging it.” Strack said.

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