Russia’s Defence Ministry has claimed that “foreign specialists” have infiltrated Syria’s Hama Governorate with the aim to stage a false flag chemical weapons attack which itself could provoke a further US missile strike on Syrian territory. According to Russian Defence Ministry Spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov,
“In the most populated area of Kafr Zita, preparations are being made for a group of residents brought from the north of the province to participate in the staging of an ‘attack’ of allegedly chemical munitions and bombs by Syrian government forces, staged assistance by mimicked ‘rescuers’ from the ‘White Helmets’ and the shooting of video for distribution to the Middle East and English-language media”.
This statement comes on the coattails of a warning from US National Security Advisor John Bolton who stated,
“Just so there’s no confusion here, if the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons we will respond very strongly and they really ought to think about this a long time”.
This rhetoric emerging from both the United States and Russia is practically a mirror image of that which transpired prior to the US led early morning missile strikes on areas surrounding the Syrian capital in addition to further strikes in Homs on the 14th of April, 2018. The strikes while hailed as a success by the US and its European partners while condemned as a war crime by Syria were in reality of virtually no strategic value. Russia later confirmed that a majority of the missiles were intercepted by relatively dated Soviet and some more recent Russian made missile defence systems while the missiles that did touch down did not hit targets of any value in respect of the war effort. Disputed figures of human casualties range from zero to ten.
Since then, the US again appeared to take a posture where it would conduct a new attack on Syria during the Syrian anti-terror operation in the south-western town of Daraa. However, both a US and Israeli intervention was averted due to Russia striking a deal to guarantee the removal of Iranian and Hezbollah troops from the vicinity of the 1967 Purple Line which separates the occupied Golan Heights from the rest of Syrian territory.
At present, much mystery surrounds just what will happen to Syria’s perpetually doomed Idlib Governorate that has been occupied by various terrorist and militant factions since 2014. While some Syrian sources claim that the government is planning to launch an all out assault on the lost Governorate as part of the strategy to “liberate every inch of Syria”, the reality will likely be different.
In parts of Idlib and nearby regions of Aleppo Governorate, fighters on the ground remain loyal to Turkey. It is inconceivable that as the strongest military power that is cooperating with both Ankara and Damascus, Russia would allow for any direct clashes between pro-Damascus and pro-Ankara factions. As Turkey and Russia continue dialogue over the matter, this reality continues to become all the more solidified.
What is however likely is a degree of joint Russo-Syrian cooperation against militants not aligned with Ankara and in this phase of the war, Turkey might well join parts of the operation, albeit without directly cooperating with Damascus. This would help promulgate Russia’s long term strategy of de-escalating tensions between Damascus and Ankara as it is in Russia’s interest to see relations between Syria and Turkey gradually normalise over the medium term.
In spite of all of this, it is still possible that pro-western groups could stage the false flag chemical attack that Major General Konashenkov has warned of, while it is equally conceivable that John Bolton is incredibly serious when he has preemptively threatened a new US strike on Syria in the event of such an “attack”.
Therefore the most important issue which thus far no side could conceivably address in public is whether such a US attack would be strategically meaningful? One of the reasons that the US led attack from April of this year was a strategic failure, apart from the surprisingly high performance of old Soviet missile interceptors, was due to the fact that the US and Russia have a de-facto agreement not to target one another’s human or material assets in Syria.
While an unprovoked attack on a sovereign state is clearly an act of reckless aggression, the US is not so reckless as to fire missiles anywhere near Russian assets. Because Russian soldiers, civilian aid workers and material assets are present in all of the strategically important parts of western Syria that a would-be aggressor could target in order to weaken the Syrian government, there is no chance that the US or its western partners would take such a chance. That was true under Barack Obama and it is certainly true under Donald Trump, a man who seems to have no real passion for US involvement in Syria in any case.
Secondly, if the US decided to strike areas of Idlib or Hama occupied by terrorist groups opposed to Damascus, they would ironically be doing the Syrian government’s job for it. Unless the US simply wants a fireworks show that would certainly not be stopped by anyone else, this could happen although the idea of the US bombing its erstwhile and in some cases current militant allies is still not all that likely.
Therefore, the most likely options are either for the US and Russia to reach some sort of common understanding regarding Idlib and surrounding areas that would necessarily restrict Syria from executing its “liberate every inch” strategy, or otherwise, a limited Russo-Syrian strike on militant targets in Idlib would be met with another US strike on insignificant targets in peripheral regions of western Syria.
Because of this, no matter what the US proxies infamous for staging false flags do and no matter what the US might do in the aftermath of such a make-believe provocation, the reality is that even if the US conducts another missile strike on Syria, there is little that the US or its allies could do that would facilitate meaningful change to the trajectory of the war or the overarching realities on the ground.
While Russia would prefer to continue private dialogue with the US to avoid such an incident, both sides certainly know that the worst case scenario would be one where Russia can engage in the largely didactic exercise of helping Syria to test some old Soviet equipment against state of the art US missile technology, while the US President could take advantage of a distraction from domestic “scandals” all the while appearing to “stand up to Russia”. Ultimately, all sides realise that at the end of the day such a strike will not make a bit of difference to how the war will progress and ultimately end.