Fabricating a Pretext

The Russians warned weeks ago that a chemical incident would be staged to justify a US attack on Syria

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Is an American missile strike on Syria imminent — possibly targeting the capital Damascus this time? That was certainly the impression given by US President Donald Trump when he blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran for the alleged use of chemical weapons in the town of Duma, supposedly in support of President Bashar al-Asad – who he described as an “animal”, and threatened that there would be a “price to pay” by them all.

The European Union promptly issued a statement holding “the Asad regime” responsible for the chemical attack in the Eastern Ghouta district, and similar statements will likely follow from various European governments and those of countries like Canada and Australia. This has become the normal procedure to prepare public opinion for military action, before impartial international investigations have even begun to establish the truth or identify the perpetrators.

Trump’s national security team was meeting on Sunday night to consider responding to the chemical attack. The decision seems already to have been taken, so no actual consideration is needed, other than about the scale and nature of the strike and the targets that should be hit in Syria. We may wake up on Monday morning to the news that the anticipated attack has taken place.

Thomas Bosert, Trump’s homeland security and anti-terrorism advisor, said in an American TV interview on Sunday that he was ruling nothing out and the Administration was “looking into the attack at this point”, while describing the images of the chemical incident as “horrible.”

The Syrian foreign ministry denied there had been any use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, and accused media outlets aligned with Jaish al-Islam of fabricating the story in order to implicate the Syrian army. The army has been making steady advances in the area and is on the verge of eliminating the remaining pockets of gunmen, It had struck a deal with Jaish al-Islam fighters in Douma, the group’s last remaining stronghold, offering them safe passage to Jarablus or Idlib in exchange for abandoning their positions and the release of of 3,500 detainees.

Two weeks ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he expected armed groups in Syria to “fabricate” a chemical weapons attack in order to provide Trump with a pretext to attack Syrian targets, while French President Emanuel Macron threatened that France would intervene militarily if there was any use of chemical weapons.

An official source quoted by the state news agency SANA noted that “the army is advancing rapidly and resolutely in Ghouta and does not need to use any chemical materials, as claimed and fabricated by some TV channels supporting the terrorists.” The source added that the terrorists and their sponsors had also made false allegations of the army’s use of chemical weapons in Aleppo, but these had not worked then and would not work now in Eastern Ghouta. Such statements reflect a great degree of self-confidence.

The big question now is not whether the Americans will attack – that seems almost certain – but how the Russians will respond. Will they deploy their S-400 air defence missiles to protect military and security sites in Damascus where Russian advisors are stationed, as the Russian chief of staff warned recently?

Neither we not anyone else can answer that question, which is presumably a top military secret. But it would not surprise us, at least, if the Russian leadership were to react in a different manner this time  — unless the US strikes prove to be purely exhibitionist, like the barrage of 59 cruise missiles Trump launched last year on the Shueirat airbase near Homs after it was alleged to have been the launching-pad for a chemical bombing on Khan Sheikhoun in the Idlib countryside. The missile strike resulted in negligible material damage.

The US has been dealt a major defeat in Syria, as Trump openly acknowledged a few days ago when he said he would withdraw his forces from the country after the US spent $70 billion there and gained nothing in return.

The US president is behaving like a raging bull, lashing out unthinkingly left and right. He may be preparing to commit a major folly in Syria to avenge the defeat of his country’s project there by Russia. If he does, he will only end up making his political and military defeat worse. It is he, and the racist war cabinet he has surrounded himself with, which is encouraging him to become even more reckless, who will have a “price to pay”.