US military and intelligence officials have expressed concern over an impending pro-Assad assault on Idlib Province in northwest Syria, the last major opposition area in the country.
We remain concerned over open-source reports of a potential military offensive by the Syrian regime against civilians and civilian infrastructure in Idlib, which would result in devastating humanitarian consequences. We also underline our concern at the potential for further — and illegal — use of chemical weapons.
The US stood aside this spring and summer while pro-Assad forces reoccupied East Ghouta near Damascus and opposition areas in southern Syria this spring and summer. The Pentagon initially warned against the attacks on Daraa and Quneitra Provinces in the south. But as Israeli fears of an Iranian and Hezbollah presence were assuaged in talks with Russia, the US told Syrian rebels that Washington would offer no support against attacks.
The Assad regime has vowed to regain “every inch” of Syrian territory. However, any offensive is dependent on Russian airpower and Iranian-led foreign militia on the ground.
Russia broke its declaration of “de-escalation zones” to enable both the East Ghouta and southern Syria offensives. So far, it has refrained from doing so with the northwest zone — Idlib, northern Hama, and western Aleppo Provinces — primarily because the Turkish military is alongside the opposition.
Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, have been pressing the Turks this month to accept an assault on the pretext of removing “terrorists”. Ankara has resisted, saying that any “terrorism” should be erased without resort to bombardment.
Turkey fears that an offensive would add to the crisis of displaced Syrians. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told Russian counterpart Lavrov that up to 3 million people, many of them fleeing other parts of the country, are in Idlib.
Turkey already hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees, and Turkish intelligence services say another 250,000 may be displaced by an offensive.
Battle of Words Over Chemical Attacks
To support the pretext for a northwest offensive — and possibly to cover for a repetition of Assad regime chemical attacks that struck Idlib Province last winter and East Ghouta this winter and spring — Russia has put out the unsupported propaganda that rebels, aided by foreigners, are preparing “false flag” incidents.
US National Security Advisor John Bolton, in talks in Moscow, warned against any use of chemical or biological weapons. The Russians have responded with the “news”, again unsupported, that the US has moved a group of cruise missile carriers to the Mediterranean to follow up the “false flag” attacks.
The Pentagon’s Pahon called out Moscow on Monday, while reiterating Bolton’s line against chemical strikes:
What I can tell you is that Russian reports of a US military buildup in the Eastern Med are nothing more than propaganda. It’s not true. That does not mean, however, that we are unprepared to respond should the President direct such an action.
Russia Continues Disinformation Over Chemical Attacks
Russia continued its disinformation campaign on Tuesday over chemical attacks, possibly to cover for an assault by the Assad regime.
Using the same tactics before the Assad regime’s chlorine and sarin attacks in northwest Syria in 2017 and in East Ghouta near Damascus this spring, Moscow has been declaring — with no evidence — that foreign-supported rebels and White Helmets rescuers are planning staged “false flag” attacks.
Despite the discrediting of the campaign by analysts and by past history — there is no record of a rebel group or the White Helmets ever staging a chemical strike — Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov insisted on Tuesday:
We believe [the jihadist group] Jabhat al-Nusra…is now close to carrying out a very serious provocation in the Idlib area with the use of a chemical agent. All that will be filmed by the White Helmets. After that, a smear campaign will begin about the use of chemical weapons by the regime against its people, and that will be used as a pretext for a massive military strike against Syria. This scenario is so obvious that we are doing our utmost to prevent it from being implemented.
The leadership of the United States and Germany can prevent it by joint efforts. But I doubt that Washington will be ready to seriously counter the implementation of this scheme, which is a provocation and is destructive for normalization processes in Syria.