Omens of War

Will a new ‘chemical weapons’ pretext be used to stop the Syrian army from retaking Idlib?

By Abdel Bari Atwan

US National Security Advisor John Bolton is one of the most influential and hawkish members of the Trump Administration, and is anti-Arab and Islamophobic in the extreme. His just-concluded three-day visit to Israel was tantamount to a counsel of war. His discussions with his closest ally Binyamin Netanyahu focused on the Iranian presence in Syria, the imminent battle for Idlib (the armed opposition’s last redoubt in the country), and how to tighten economic sanctions on Iran in order to get the Iranian people to revolt against the regime.

Two main points stand out from the press conference Bolton held in occupied Jerusalem at the end of his visit, and are worth trying to decipher:

First, he issued a strongly worded warning to the Syrian leadership that the US will respond ‘with great force’ should it resort to chemical weapons in any attack on Idlib.

Secondly, he said the US was not seeking to change the regime in Tehran but only wanted to change its behaviour, as the nuclear deal had enabled it to finance armed activities in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

With regard to the first point, anyone following the seven-year war in Syria will have been left with the impression that the US administration is well aware that the Syrian army is poised to launch an offensive to recapture the city, and that the US is strongly opposed to this move. It may well have plans to impede  or foil it, using the ever-ready pretext that the regime is using chemical weapons — as happened in Duma (in the Eastern Ghouta) and Khan Shaykhun (in the Idlib countryside).

Russian intelligence reports confirmed that the US used the so-called ‘White Helmets’ to fabricate claims of chemical weapons use in both locations. This explains why Israeli special forces hastily evacuated 800 ‘Helmets’ and their families from southern Syria after the army succeeded — with the help of Russian air cover – in retaking areas formerly controlled by armed factions in Deraa, Quneitra, and the Jaber-Nusayeb border crossing with Jordan. It was evidently deemed vital to prevent any of the ‘Helmets’ from falling into Syrian or Russian hands and revealing details of their activities and their role in these chemical weapons charges.

There are still some ‘White Helmets’ in Idlib. It will be no surprise if the same chemical weapons ‘scenario’ is revived once again to justify air or missile strikes against Syrian targets – like the assault launched by the US, Britain and France last April ostensibly in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta.

A few days ago, and after a long absence, the leader of the Tahrir ash-Sham organisation (the former NusraFront) Abu-Muhammad al-Jawlani appeared in a videotape inspecting an operations room in the northwestern province of Latakia. He declared that his group – which is designated as terrorist — had drawn up a plan with other factions to repulse any Syrian army offensive against Idlib. He declared that it would amount to ‘treason’ for anyone to surrender to, reconcile with, or hand over any weapons to the Syrian army. Jawlani’s unexpected appearance at this particular point in time cannot be a mere coincidence. It is striking that nobody has yet tried to deny the recent admission by a NATO general that the US provided support to Tahrir ash-Sham.

Bolton was plainly lying when he claimed his government was not trying to change the regime in Tehran but only its behaviour. He was appointed to his post three months because of his conviction that it was imperative to topple the Iranian regime, and his visit to Israel was aimed at making the practical arrangements for achieving that goal — starting with ending Iran’s military presence in Syria and tightening the economic blockade on Tehran as a means of inciting revolution.

As a prominent advocate of the war on Iraq and changing the regime in Baghdad via invasion and occupation, Bolton is well aware that a suffocating blockade can greatly assist in the toppling, or at least weakening, of a targeted regime, whatever the horrific harm inflicted on innocent civilians.

But what Bolton, Netanyahu and their ilk forget is that the current situation in Syria and Iran differs from that in Iraq in 2003. In both cases, especially the former, Russia constitutes a decisive factor. Moreover, no other country (with the bizarre exception of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi) has committed to abiding by US sanctions against Iran.

Bolton is an omen of war. All his visits to the Middle East since 1990 have been aimed at preparing for wars, and occupied Jerusalem was always one of his key stops. His latest visit is no exception. But we can be confident that the outcomes will be different this time. Russia – which launched 100 missiles against terrorist-designated groups in the area on Wednesday – has shown that it will stand by the Syrian army offensive to recapture Idlib, the last remaining enclave outside its control.