The political significance of this story is whether chemical weapons were used.

PHOTO: Dead animals after an attack on Khan al-Assal in Aleppo Province on 19 March

Russia’s submission of a dossier to the United Nations claiming “compelling evidence” that insurgents used home-made sarin in a March attack in Aleppo Province has caused a bit of a stir.

The Syrian National Coalition and opposition activists strongly denied that the insurgency had used a chemical agent.

Other observers have gone farther, trying to disprove Moscow’s claims.

Here’s the political truth: as shocking as a chemical attack would be — whoever the perpetrator — the “evidence” claiming one side or the other is responsible is peripheral. The reality is that we are unlikely to ever know if chemical weapons were used on Khan al-Assal on 19 March.

Instead, the significance in this story is why Moscow is making these allegations at this particular juncture.

To understand that, we need to examine how the “chemical weapons” narrative has been used by both sides as a powerful pawn in ongoing political and diplomatic battles to control the outcome in Syria.

On one side, Washington, London, and Paris have all asserted that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons to gain political leverage in their bids to arm the insurgency. On the other, Moscow’s assertions that insurgents used chemical agents is an attempt to bolster its line that President Assad cannot be forced from power.

To appreciate this, let’s go back to late 2012, when the US put out allegations of regime use of chemical weapons to cover its decision to covertly support insurgent. Or let’s rewind a month and examine the claims by Britain and France that regime forces used chemical weapons. In their dossier to the United Nations, London and Paris claimed regime use of sarin not only at Khan al-Assal but also in the Aleppo neighborhood of Shaikh Maqsud in April and in Qasr Abu Samrah in Homs Province and in Adra, east of Damascus, in May. Washington later supported those claims.

Those asertions have now disappeared. In part, this is because there is no way to establish them as fact. However, the main reason why London, Paris and Washington have stopped pushing their claims is because they served their immediate political purpose: Britain and France wanted the EU to lift its embargo on arms to insurgents — they got it. Factions within the Obama Administration wanted the US to push ahead with supplying weapons to the insurgency — they got a decision for overt provision, but have not been able to convert that into significant delivery of heavy equipment such as anti-tanks and anti-aircraft weaponry.

Meanwhile, the US — as a complement to its debate over its military relationship with the opposition — continued to pursue the diplomatic route of an international Peace Conference. Washington chose to do so in conjunction with Moscow, perhaps in the belief that Russia could be persuaded to influence Assad to consider stepping down.

And that is where the complications, and the latest stage for the “chemical weapons” performance, arose.

Just as Washington was hoping to bend Moscow’s position on Assad, so Russia was hoping to influence the US on the same issue, via the proposed conference. The Geneva gathering would include Assad’s backer Iran, who together with Russia would likely call for an end to “foreign intervention” in Syria.

Perhaps most importantly, however, Russia refused to accept any pre-condition that Assad step down to make way for a transitional government.

The Syrian opposition, at least the Syrian National Coalition outside the country, will not attend a conference on those lines. So the question became whether the US would publicly give some room for consideration of Russia’s demands and back away from the precondition that Assad step down and accept a place for Tehran at the conference.

When this move proved untenable, because it would separate Washington and its allies from the US-backed Syrian National Coalition, the conference became effectively a non-starter.

In the wake of this development, Russia then moved to the next level of its diplomatic campaign — presenting its allegations that it was the Syrian insurgency, and not the regime, who used chemical weapons. This claim backs up Moscow’s persistent arguments that the insurgents are illegitimate and are dominated by “Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist extremists”.

Moscow did not make its move alone. It did so in concert with Damascus, which this week announced for the first time that it would meet the UN’s chemical weapons investigators, and that it would allow them to go to one site where chemical weapons could have been used.

The site, unsurprisingly, is Khan al-Assal.

Moscow has thrown other jabs as well. Earlier this week the Russian Government sent two planeloads of humanitarian aid to Lattakia, ostensibly for Palestinian refugees, as a “gesture of friendship”. It declared support in particular for Palestinian refugees from the conflict, thus linking the Syrian and Israel-Palestine issues.

The Russian initiative is unlikely to bring any major change in the Syrian situation. Just like its British-French counterpart, its claims are unprovable.

But proving that the insurgency used chemical weapons is not Moscow’s objective. This is a “hold-the-line” move, reinforcing the Syrian regime as it stabilises its recent gains in the south and pressures insurgents in Homs. It is a shifting of the debate away from calls for Assad’s removal.