Syria and Russia dig in over chemical attacks
After the smoke cleared from the American, French and British missile strikes on Syria’s suspected chemical weapons plants a week back, a miasma of contested claims and disinformation was settling in this week.
What was clear was that nothing much was changed. Bashar al-Assad, who’d sent his air force to take shelter at Russian bases, had it back in action two days later, bombing rebel positions. America and its allies had stayed well clear of Russian forces, and Vladimir Putin had not used his powerful S-400 air defence system covering the region to obstruct the Western attacks.
Critics, such as British Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, said the Western powers should have waited until the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) could get into the site of the suspected chemical attack at Douma to collect hard evidence. Inspectors were due in Douma last weekend but they were blocked by Syrian and Russian authorities citing “security” issues. They offered to bus alleged victims to Damascus instead.
The lack of security around the evidence did not lend credibility to the exercise, US biowarfare expert Gregory Koblentz told Foreign Policy: “It’s like the criminals came back to the scene of the crime and they can do whatever they want with the evidence before the cops show up.” The OPCW visit to Douma was rescheduled for Wednesday, then postponed again.
So far, the Western allies have not been able to get samples of blood, hair and soil out of Douma, as they had with the April 4, 2017, sarin nerve-agent attack on Khan Sheikhoun, which led to an earlier round of strikes. From open-source information, they are certain that the Douma attack involved two large canisters of chlorine dropped from Syrian helicopters, and suspect sarin might also have been used.
Russian and Syrian diplomats have been postulating that the video footage of distressed victims could have been faked by the rebels, or that they themselves staged a “false flag” attack. As French security analyst François Heisbourg said: “The Russians can pretend that this was done by a band of Swedish clowns and some people will believe it.”
Donald Trump meanwhile was concentrating on battles on the home front, as the dismissed FBI chief James Comey did the rounds publicising his new book A Higher Loyalty, about his encounters with the president.
Comey said it was “possible” that an alleged incident in a Moscow hotel, involving two prostitutes and a “golden shower” display, as detailed in former MI6 officer Christopher Steele’s famous dossier on Trump’s Russian connections, had occurred and compromised the president.
The president tweeted that Comey was a slimeball. His lawyers were also active in a New York court, following special investigator Robert Mueller’s access to the seized records of his long-time fixer and lawyer Michael Cohen, famed for paying off two women claiming to have had extramarital sex with Trump.
Mueller is reported to have evidence Cohen made a secret trip to Prague in 2016, about the time he was alleged in Steele’s dossier to have met a powerful Kremlin figure there to discuss cyber activity to discredit election opponent Hillary Clinton.
Much is being read into Trump’s strange issue of a pardon on April 13 to Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff to former vice-president Dick Cheney convicted in 2007 for lying to the FBI and obstruction of justice. Libby had outed CIA agent Valerie Plame to punish her husband, diplomat Joseph Wilson, who publicly disavowed the Bush administration’s claims he had found evidence Saddam Hussein was trying to acquire uranium for nuclear weapons, an excuse for the 2003 invasion. Libby got 30 months’ jail, but that was immediately commuted by Bush.
It’s seen as a signal to Trump’s arrested associates, such as Paul Manafort, not to roll over and sing to Mueller in the face of threatened charges that could bring long jail terms. “The pardoning of somebody who is convicted for obstruction of justice working in the White House, I think is more about sending a message to people today than it is about a case that’s 10 years old,” said Senator Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate against Trump.
Mueller is reported to be within weeks of wrapping up his investigation into whether Trump attempted to pervert the course of justice, an impeachable offence. The grounds might include Comey’s dismissal, a misleading statement about a June 2016 meeting by his son with Russians at Trump Tower, the offer of pardons to witnesses, and pressure on his attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, not to recuse himself over his meetings with the Russian ambassador.
Kompromat or no kompromat, Trump is still pulling his punches with Moscow.
Last Sunday, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, announced new sanctions on Russian companies helping Syria’s chemical weapons program. On Monday, the White House said this was not approved by Trump. A staffer said Haley had suffered “momentary confusion”, which she indignantly denied. Trump had flip-flopped again.
Reports said Trump was also irked that the US had expelled proportionally more Russian diplomats than its allies over the nerve-agent poisoning of swapped MI6 spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
New uncertainties gripped the Middle East, meanwhile, with hostilities deepening between Israel and Iran.
On April 9, missiles fired by Israeli aircraft from over Lebanon hit a Syrian airbase known as T-4. They killed seven members of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, including a colonel, along with seven others.
This follows a strike in February on T-4 after an Israeli attack helicopter shot down a drone entering Israeli airspace. In that counterstrike, an Israeli F-16 was hit by anti-aircraft defences and only just made it back for its crew to eject over Israel. The Israel Defense Forces now say the drone was armed with explosives and sent by Iranian forces in Syria to hit a target. The second strike seems aimed at deterring or pre-empting further drone attacks.
On Monday, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said his government wasn’t interested in intervening in Syria’s civil war but asserted “total freedom of action” to hit Iranian threats to its own security from Syria, and the Russians understood that. “We will not tolerate a significant Iranian military force in Syria in the form of military ports and airports or the deployment of sophisticated weaponry,” he said.
In the background is a struggle for dominance in Iran. On one hand are religious hardliners and the Revolutionary Guards, spending state resources on military campaigns expanding a “Shiite corridor” through Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean, as well as confronting Israel. On the other are moderates around President Hassan Rouhani trying to open contacts with the West after signing the nuclear limitation agreement in 2015. Trump’s threat to withdraw from this agreement and reimpose sanctions next month is contributing to economic panic in Iran, where the currency has devalued sharply this year.
The meeting of the Trump golden comb-over with the Kim Jong-un buzz-cut is firming up, with CIA director and nominated secretary of state Mike Pompeo having made a secret trip to Pyongyang over Easter to meet the North Korean leader.
Meeting Japan’s Shinzō Abe in Florida this week, Trump said the summit could happen in late May or June, at one of five neutral places in Europe and Asia. Before that, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in meets Kim next Friday at the demilitarised zone, with plans to make the DMZ exactly that rather than a tense truce-line on hair-trigger alert. •
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 21, 2018 as "Syria and Russia dig in over chemical attacks ". Subscribe here.