Moscow has sent biggest task force to Mediterranean ahead of battle for rebel province
Russia readies for Idlib campaign with fake news and major naval build-up
Russia is strengthening its military presence in the Mediterranean off the Syrian coast and waging a disinformation campaign online as it prepares for an anticipated regime offensive on the rebel-held province of Idlib, experts believe.
Russian state newspaper Izvestia reported that Moscow had moved 10 warships and two submarines into waters near western Syria, where the traditional heartlands of President Bashar Al Assad are located.
It called the task force the biggest naval deployment since Russia intervened on behalf of the Syrian leader since September 2015. Citing military experts, it said the fleet would support the Syrian regime’s campaign for Idlib.
Idlib, a north-western province that borders Turkey, has served as a refuge for those fleeing the civil war but it has also harboured militants accused of alignment with Al Qaeda. Russia has announced peace talks with armed groups there which recently struck in Eastern Ghouta and the southern province of Deraa.
But militant leaders have called on fighters not to hand over their weapons and to keep up the fight against the regime. Russian and regime manoeuvres, as well as potential rebel defiance, could all equate to a protracted and deadly offensive on Syria’s biggest rebel stronghold.
“The movement of pro-regime troops on the Latakia border with Idlib as well as Russia's ramping up its forces in the Mediterranean further indicate that an offensive is looming, though it is not yet clear what the extent of this offensive will be,” said Dr Lina Al Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at international affairs think tank Chatham House.
On social media, Russia’s diplomatic representations in the West went into propaganda mode on Monday, accusing rebels and the West of preparing to stage a chemical attack in the north-western province that would “provoke” strikes against the Syrian regime.
Russia’s embassy in the US tweeted that Washington “keeps building up the group of cruise missile carries” in the region, a move that was “connected with the preparation of a regular provocation with an alleged use of chemical weapons” in Idlib.
Its British mission, citing the Russian Ministry of Defence, said that “terrorists” are preparing a fake chemical attack, accusing militants of receiving eight chlorine containers. It said the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated rescue group, the White Helmets, of being British-trained and preparing to save the victims of a staged attack. It said the alleged preparations were to frame Damascus and be used as a pretext for air strikes.
The Syrian regime has been accused of a series of chemical attacks against civilians in a bid to retrieve areas it has lost in the seven-year-long civil war. Both Damascus and Moscow have denied any role in the attacks, but the UN and western governments have pointed the finger at Al Assad.
The worst atrocities have taken place in Douma and Ghouta, killing hundreds, with the nerve agent sarin reportedly used and dropped from above by regime jets.
Experts say the disinformation campaign points to preparations by Moscow and Damascus for a major offensive on Idlib, one that may again call upon the strategy of chemical weapons use to reclaim a rebel-held area.
The online campaign is “fake news” and likely to be a “diversion strategy” to preemptively shape the narrative surrounding any Idlib offensive, said Mathieu Boulegue, Russia expert and analyst at think tank Centre d'Analyse de la Politique Étrangère in Paris.
In recent years, a pattern has emerged of the regime's chemical weapons use in the final stages of offensives on areas they wished to retrieve from rebels, such as in the northern city of Aleppo, the rebel-held area of Khan Sheikhoun, where a regime strike killed at least 74 in a suspected civilian chemical poisoning, and most recently Douma last year, where at least 48 people were killed. Medical workers, rebel forces and the US and EU have all blamed Damascus for those attacks.
“In all these cases, the regime and Russia always declared that they were not responsible for the chemical attacks,” Dr Khatib added.
“That Russia is spreading fake news online claiming that the West is planning to orchestrate a chemical attack on Idlib is therefore an indicator that Russia is preparing to target the area.”
It is likely that both Damascus and Moscow are preparing to shield against any international condemnation that may come its way in what will probably be a bloody battle to the end for the last rebel-held province in the country. The regime and Russians have transported rebels to Idlib in deals struck to reclaim areas across Syria, but that has only delayed a major attack on what is left of the rebel presence in Syria.
The Russians are masters of “fake news”. But it appears that they have now perfected the art of using US President Donald Trump’s favourite phrase ahead of the act, a ploy that the American leader and allies across Europe must, and surely will, immediately see through.
The naval build-up, disinformation about chemical weapons use and movement of troops in Latakia all raise the prospect that Idlib, one of the first areas to rise up against Mr Al Assad, will be the site of where the revolution ultimately comes to its end.