Russia Ramps Up Chemical Weapon Disinformation Leading-Up to Idlib Offensive

As a potential offensive into the remaining Syrian rebel strongholds in Idlib from the Assad government becomes more likely, Russian propaganda outlets like RT (formerly known as Russia Today), their various embassies, and their network of friendly media outlets have started pushing stories of potential chemical attacks in Idlib and Hama.

Various stories spread by Russia, particularly its Ministry of Defense, claim that phone calls were made to the Russian Reconciliation Center supposedly warning a number of nefarious activities. These claims from Russian government bodies and outlets connected to Russia’s media network have accused a range of groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets), of readying false flag operations to blame Russia or Syria. However, while there is no evidence of any actual preparations for “false flag attacks”, on the 26th of August, RT’s Ruptly video service uploaded footage of a government Volcano missile launcher being deployed to Idlib. This comes five years after chemical weapons variants of this launcher were used in the 2013 Ghouta attack.

Sputnik, another Russian state-funded media outlet, has also pushed a story by the Russian Ministry of Defense claiming that specialist groups trained by the British Olive group were preparing to conduct a possible attack. The Olive group ceased to exist in 2015 following a merger with Constellis group. 

These claims continue a narrative pushed by Russia and the Assad government that British special forces are somehow involved in Syria. A similarly bizarre, and unverifiable, claim was made earlier that British troops were captured in Ghouta by pro-government forces.

Russia’s official government bodies and media outlets also continue to promote images from a pro-government movie funded by the Syrian government. The plot of the movie, Revolution Man, portrays an international journalist who fakes a chemical weapons incident with the help of terrorists.

The images, sometimes claimed to be from a White Helmets film set, are often posted in conjunction with stories or tweets “predicting” upcoming chemical attacks. The same images and claims were used in Russian media when questioning government responsibility for the Douma chemical weapon attack.

Such claims are not always connected to or in anticipation of any specific attacks by pro-government forces. Rather these claims seem to come at times when Russia needs to muddle the conversation regarding attacks, or going into preemptive damage control for an ally it struggles to control.

Coinciding with these claims, the United States, United Kingdom, and France have stated they will act in the event of a government chemical weapons attack in Idlib. However, there is little reason to expect actual action if a chemical attack were to occur. 

With over 200 documented chemical weapons incidents in Syria, most of which have been committed by the Assad government, the actual response by countries who have threatened action in the past has been largely symbolic and limited.  

Following the first major use of Sarin on Ghouta in 2013 by pro-government forces, the United States backed down from the now-infamous “red line” against chemical weapons usage. Instead, chemical weapons stockpiles were allegedly destroyed with the help of international bodies. Pro-government forces continued to use chlorine and Sarin following the Ghouta attack, with the vast majority of chlorine attacks having gone largely unnoticed or ignored by the countries threatening military action. Though some military actions have taken place following flagrant chemical attacks carried out by pro-government forces, most of these strikes were relatively limited and Russian forces were warned in advance of incoming strikes.

Accusations against rebels, the White Helmets, and various other bogeymen created by government supporters and propaganda have generally pushed the narrative that because the pro-government forces are winning, there is no need for them to use chemical weapons that draw heavy international scrutiny. The most likely reasoning for these attacks, according to this logic, is the desire of the rebels, whom they believe are fully funded and backed by foreign enemies of Assad, to draw in outside intervention. Seven years into the Syrian Civil War and with no sign of serious military intervention after hundreds of chemical attacks, this logic seems weaker than ever.

Whether or not the government plans to use chemical weapons during an offensive in Idlib has yet to be seen. Chemical weapons were successfully used by the Syrian Army in Douma to advance the government’s demands over Russia’s plans and agreements with groups like Faylaq al-Rahman, thus making this route more attractive for Assad to use again.

However, the presence of Turkish soldiers along the borders of Idlib impedes the government’s use of chemical weapons in Idlib. Despite a relatively tame response to previous attacks, new U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton could see Assad’s use of chemical weapons in a highly-scrutinized battle as an opportunity to strike government forces in order to project what the administration may see as strength.

While the potential response of the U.S. and Europe is unclear in the event of a chemical attack in Idlib, it is clear that Russia and its allies are intent on muddling the media landscape in the event that Assad yet again uses chemical weapons during a future Idlib offensive.