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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Russia pre-empts Idlib offensive with smear campaign

Analysis: Moscow is falsely claiming that US journalists are staging fake chemical attacks in Syria

A child wears an improvised gas masks in Syria's rebel-held northern Idlib province. AFP
A child wears an improvised gas masks in Syria's rebel-held northern Idlib province. AFP

It will be the perfect Western conspiracy, Russia says.

According to the Russian defence ministry, Middle Eastern and US television networks have already sent operatives into northern Syria to stage and film a fake chemical attack ahead of an expected Russian and Syrian government operation in Idlib, billed as the last major battle of the civil war.

Rebel militants, the Kremlin says, have already delivered the toxic substances, including chlorine, to the town of Jisr Al Shughour in Idlib. Meanwhile the work of professionally faking scenes of rescue workers helping civilians has already begun, they say.

The Kremlin’s disinformation campaign is ramping up ahead of the planned Russian and Syrian government operation in Idlib, billed as the last major battle of the Syrian war.

Never mind that independent UN investigators have previously proved that the Syrian regime, backed by Moscow’s political and military machine, have carried out chemical attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians around the country.

The repeated denials of such chemical weapons use by the regime of Bashar Al Assad and his Russian sponsors – in the face of all evidence – are being reinforced by Russian counterclaims aimed at obfuscating the issue.

"According to the data from the Idlib Governorate’s residents, currently the filming of a staged provocation of the alleged chemical weapons use by the Syrian army against the civilians is under way in Jisr ash-Shugur,” said a statement by the Russian defense ministry mission in Syria, published in the TASS news agency on Tuesday.

"Film crews from several Middle East TV channels and also a regional branch of a leading US news TV channel arrived in Jisr ash-Shugur this morning for filming."

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Read more:

Bombings in Syria's Idlib drive more than 30,000 from their homes

UN war crimes team documents further Syrian regime use of banned chlorine

Assad regime hits Idlib hospitals, first responders as latest Syrian offensive looms

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The fear is that this propaganda campaign may be a prelude to yet another real chemical attack, which could be disastrous given the numbers of civilians in Idlib.

The province is marbled with areas controlled by Islamists, moderate rebels and militants from Hayat Tahrir Al Sham HTS – an extremist group previously aligned with Al Qaeda.

Among this patchwork of opposition are over three million civilians. This includes hundreds of thousands who were displaced from other parts of Syria – many forcibly exiled after refusing to return to living under the Assad regime as it reclaimed the country from rebel groups.

Russian officials claim a staged chemical attack would supposedly spur an American intervention to stop the offensive, even though previous chemical attacks under the administration of US President Donald Trump only prompted limited cruise missile strikes.

They have also sought to emphasise the threat of militants, using language that hinted at the conduct of the coming battle, with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov describing them as a “festering abscess” that must be “liquidated.”

The civilians, hundreds of thousands of whom may choose to try and flee across the border into Turkey, were merely “hostages” being used by the militants, said Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s envoy to the UN Security Council.

Lost in the debate over the crisis is the fact that Moscow itself negotiated the agreement that designated Idlib a “de-escalation” zone.

Previously in the campaign to reclaim eastern Ghouta, it signed a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate halt to fighting, a declaration it immediately disregarded in favour of its own orchestrated “humanitarian pauses” and nightly bombardment.

Moscow will once again use its propaganda capabilities to obfuscate and promote its own interests, reneging on deals when the time is right.

“I think ideally we'd like to stop the regime assault and win some time to move HTS out of idlib,” said one Turkish official, speaking anonymously to discuss a sensitive matter. “Obviously that’s easier said than done.”

The official added: “The Russians are competing with the Iranians over Damascus. I don't think they really care about Idlib. They want to finish what they started.”

Russian disinformation has long been a key component of its intervention in Syria, which was critical in turning the tide of the war in Assad’s favour. While Moscow claimed it intervened to combat terrorists, specifically ISIS, an analysis in May 2018 by IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center found that just 14 per cent of Russian airstrikes actually targeted the group.

Exhortations about terrorists and Russia’s alleged desire to protect civilians have been repeated time and again before every major government offensive that claimed civilian lives, such as in Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta, and flies in the face of Moscow’s record of civilian casualties. The Syrian Network for Human Rights, known for its more conservative estimates, has verified over 6,000 civilian deaths caused by Moscow. Between 700 and 1,200 of those killed by Russia died during the brutal campaign to reclaim eastern Ghouta earlier this year, according to the non-profit Air Wars, a campaign that also saw the Syrian regime use chemical weapons in the town of Douma.

At the time, the attack provoked limited strikes by the US, UK and France on Syrian government chemical facilities. The Pentagon reported a 2,000 per cent jump in Russian troll activity in the day after the bombardment.

Russia’s repeated claims of an orchestrated chemical attack have given rise to fears that Assad’s forces will once again deploy toxic gas against civilians. Locals are fashioning makeshift gas masks from plastic bottles and tin cans – unlikely to protect against a real attack – while they await their fate in a scenario that has already played out repeatedly in Syria.