UPDATE 1030 GMT: Russia has launched another coordinated wave of disinformation to cover a pro-Assad offensive and possible chemical attacks on northwest Syria.
Defense Ministry Spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov asserted without evidence:
According to the information that the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria received today from the residents of the Idlib, foreign English-speaking experts arrived in the Hbit settlement, located in the south of the Idlib zone of de-escalation, for staging a chemical attack using chlorine-loaded missiles.
Thus, the interested extra-regional forces are once again preparing major provocations in Syria using poisonous substances to severely destabilize the situation and disrupt the steady dynamics of the ongoing peace process.
Konashenkov said of the supposed “provocation” with toxic substances, “The strike on the settlement of Kafrzita from rocket launchers using poisonous substances is planned in the next two days.”
He claimed civilians from elsewhere in northern Syria are being moved into Kafrzita “to take part in the staging of the attack”, assisting “fake rescuers from the White Helmets [by] filming reports which will later be disseminated among the Middle Eastern and English-language media”.
Russian State outlets — such as RT, Tass, and Sputnik — and pro-Assad activists are all pushing the latest disinformation as “news”.
The head of the Russian “Center for Reconciliation”, Maj. Gen. Alexei Tsygankov, proclaimed Saturday — again, without evidence — that “several thousand militants with heavy weaponry and armored vehicles” have gathered in Idlib Province to attack regime-occupied areas in Hama and Aleppo Provinces.
Using disinformation, Russia has criticized a US warning to the Assad regime against any use of chemical and/or biological weapons in an assault on Idlib Province, the last major opposition area in Syria.
A “de-escalation zone” was declared last year by Russia, Turkey, and Iran for most of Idlib, northern Hama, and western Aleppo Provinces. However, Russia broke other zones this spring and summer, as pro-Assad forces reoccupied the East Ghouta near Damascus and almost all opposition territory in southern Syria.
With pro-Assad forces massing in the northwest — and with Russian and regime attacks just outside a ring of 12 Turkish observation posts — many expect a full assault soon. Russia has spent this month trying to convince Turkey, which intervened alongside rebels in the area from August 2016, to accept the offensive to defeat “terrorists”.
The US has largely stood aside, except for its support of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, since Russia’s military intervention in September 2015 and seizure of the political lead from 2016. But last week National Security Advisor John Bolton, on the eve of his Thursday talks in Moscow, issued the warning against chemical and biological attacks.
“Four people familiar with the discussions” said Bolton told his counterpart Nikolai Patrushev, during their five-hour meeting, of US intelligence that the Assad regime may be preparing the attacks. He said the US is prepared to respond with force.
In April 2017, the US launched missile strikes, a week after a regime sarin attack in northwest Syria that killed about 90 people and wounded hundreds. The US, Britain, and France hit suspected chemical weapons facilities in April 2018, after a regime chemical attack on the town of Douma to force the surrender of the East Ghouta area near Damascus.
Russia’s Reply with Disinformation
The Russian Defense Ministry responded on Saturday with its standard tactic of disinformation and conspiracy theory, trying to present the threat to Idlib as a “false flag” chemical attack by rebels.
“We caution Washington against another military escapade,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said. “When things don’t turn out the way the US and its allies want, then new provocations are prepared.”
Moscow has used the same approach for other pro-Assad offensives, including the seizure of eastern Aleppo city in December 2016, subsequent attacks in northwest Syria, and the assault on East Ghouta. In no case has any evidence supported their declaration of rebel operations, rather than the Assad regime’s use of chlorine and sarin.
The Russian Defense Ministry bolstered its propaganda with the accusation that the US is collaborating with “Al Qa’eda-linked” rebels.
Moscow’s reference is to the jihadist bloc Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which has taken control of part of Idlib Province in battles with rebel factions. The US has never worked with HTS and officially designates the bloc as a terrorist organization.
Ryabkov linked the blame of Washington to the pretext for the pro-Assad offensive breaking the de-escalation zone:
We are hearing ultimatums from Washington…and it does not affect our determination to continue our policy for the total elimination of terrorist epicenters in Syria and the return of this country to a normal life.
From Russian State Outlets Through Social Media
Russia has been building up the “false flag” line for weeks, escalating the disinformation in recent days, with the assistance of pro-Assad activists, bloggers, and academics.
Russian State outlet RT has been headlining the Defense Ministry’s statements and supporting them with conspiracy theory posts, the latest by Canadian activist Eva Bartlett:
— RT (@RT_com) August 26, 2018
UK academic Piers Robinson, part of the pro-Assad “Working Group on Syria, Propaganda, and Media”, was used by RT America to push the line. Another UK academic Tim Hayward has been promoting the Twitter threads of conspiracist theorists — with links to sites such as Infowars and Veterans Today — and leading pro-Assad blogger Vanessa Beeley.
This is a remarkable thread of evidence relating to 2013 chemical incident in Ghouta. It's very much worth reviewing in light of US talk about further impending chemical incident in Syria. https://t.co/or7zzpgUce
— Tim Hayward (@Tim_Hayward_) August 23, 2018
Outlets from Iran, the essential ally alongside Russia propping up the Assad regime, have also given support. Tehran University academic Mohammad Marandi, a prominent voice on English-language media for the Islamic Republic’s line, wrote on Twitter:
In other words, "Time for Al Qaeda to prepare something in Idlib."
(I wonder if this is enough to get one removed from Twitter and Facebook) https://t.co/uPPRCvENvX
— S. Mohammad Marandi (@s_m_marandi) August 24, 2018