The chemical disarmament of the Assad regime, which was presented as a huge achievement of Russian diplomacy several years ago, turned out to be a fraud. In new realities, the Kremlin condones the resumption of the Syrian lethal arsenal in every possible way, which makes the situation in the region increasingly tense and extremely far from peaceful.
Hard week of Kremlin patrons of Assad
The Russian myth about the victorious procession of Kremlin diplomacy in the Syrian issue showed its complete failure in a very short period of time.
The Sochi Congress of the National Dialogue, which took place on January 29-30, ended in disgrace for the Russian Foreign Ministry and Lavrov personally, because no fundamental decisions were taken on the basis of the work of the quite expensive event.
As expected, Sochi-1 ended with the announcement of a few intelligible declarations that more and more such meetings are needed, and then the Syrian delegates can come to some common denominator. But this is not exact at all. They return to work in the framework of the political dialogue in Geneva. In general, Sochi has not become a platform for developing the parameters of the “new Syria”, and this is not surprising in view of the ongoing war in the country.
The most vivid illustration of the escalation of the combat activities in the country was another incident with the attack of the Russian Su-25 attack aircraft over the province of Idlib on February 3.
The military aircraft was shot down, and the pilot, who catapulted, died in a shootout with militants. This is the fifth aircraft lost by the Russian AF in Syria, but only the second loss in the course of the combat mission.
While there is some uncertainty: who can stand behind this incident? Russian sources say that this is the work of the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda – the group “Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham”. There are also suggestions that it may be the fighters of “Jays al-Fatah”, allegedly involved in the murder of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov in Ankara in late 2016.
But the most believable version is that it can be fighters of the Arab grouping “Brigades of Samarkand”, supported by Turkey. Many media reported in January 2018 that the rebels of one of the units of the Syrian Free Army seized Russian man portable air defense weapon “Igla” from the Kurds.
The Kremlin’s attempts to change the subject to Washington were immediately refuted by the American side. Pentagon spokesman Eric Peno told RIA Novosti that the United States did not supply weapons surface-to-air type to Syria, and they do not intend to do it in the future.
It turns out that Russian planes are knocked down by rebels allegedly now friendly to Turkey, Moscow proxy. As we see in this example, there is no “Sochi Troika” in fact, and Erdogan will limit the already weakening influence of Russia in Syria wherever it possible.
Such actions are difficult to condemn for the simple reason that Putin’s regime is constantly selling allies, as it did with the Kurds, and any deals with this regime are not worth the eaten-out egg. What is also very important, the Russian attack aircraft carried out a combat mission over the zone of de-escalation, and supported the advance of the Assad forces in the Sarakeb town. It turns out that de-escalation zones in Syria, so glorified by Russian propaganda, simply do not work.
But with the failure of Sochi-1 and the air crash on the Su-25, the problems for Russians and their Alawite friends in Damascus did not end at all. The greatest concern of the Russian-Syrian autocrats is the US statement that the Assad regime has restored its chemical weapons development program.
This means a total collapse of the reputation of Moscow as the initiator of the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria. The US is looking for confirmation of reports about the use of Syrian sarin by the Syrian authorities. The head of the Pentagon, James Mattis, stated this to journalists on February 2. According to him, he “has not seen any confirmation of reports on the use of sarin”, but “is worried about this”.
“Representatives of the Syrian opposition say that sarin was used, and we are looking for confirmation of these reports”, – added Mattis. The head of the Pentagon also pointed out that the Syrian government “repeatedly used gaseous chlorine” against own citizens.
On February 1, the head of the US State Department’s press service, Heather Nauert, stated that the administration of President Donald Trump “is extremely concerned about new reports of the use of gaseous chlorine by the Syrian regime against civilians in East Ghouta. We take the accusations of using chemical weapons very seriously, and we will continue to prosecute all those responsible for confirmed cases of using chemical weapons through existing diplomatic mechanisms, including the UN Security Council and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)”.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also accused Russia of “inability to manage with the proliferation of chemical weapons in Syria.” In general, there is an extremely unattractive picture: Russia no longer controls the situation with Turkey, and there are also serious doubts that Damascus does not conduct its artful game behind the Russians by the advice of Tehran.
As a result, this may lead to a weakening of the Kremlin’s position in the solution of the Syrian problem, or it will finally destroy the Russian image of the peacekeeping country.
Syria and WMD: combat chemistry against civilians
The Assad tribe ruling in Syria belongs to the Shia sect of the Alawites, and after coming to power in the early 1970, constantly felt itself in a vulnerable position.
The reason was that the Alawites are a minority inside Syria, opposed by the Sunni masses. At the external level, Damascus felt the growing pressure of Israel. To get rid of the described weaknesses, the Assad tribe decided to bet on the development of weapons of mass destruction, which should have equaled their chances in the fight against opponents.
The Syrian government sought to develop various directions for the creation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The country possessed the rudiments of its own nuclear program, which developed in close cooperation with the DPRK.
Syria is a party of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and has repeatedly tried to acquire small nuclear reactors for research purposes in China, Russia, Argentina and other countries. Despite the fact that these attempts were carried out under the control of the IAEA, the SAR leadership canceled its decision to purchase reactors under pressure from the international community.
Syria has an program of nuclear research in a miniature reactor of Chinese production under IAEA control. At the same time, Israel constantly suspected Damascus of having a secret nuclear military program. This was evidenced by the refusals of the Syrian authorities to provide ability for IAEA inspectors to visit the country’s nuclear facilities, in particular, the building in the Dir al-Zura region, where an atomic reactor could be built as a North Korean nuclear facility in Yongbyon.
So, if it were not for the operation of the Israeli Air Force in September 2007, the Assad regime would have been able to acquire a nuclear bomb in mid-2008.
According to NATO experts on biological weapons, Syria is developing in the field of obtaining deadly viruses and bacteria that cause botulism, smallpox, anthrax, tularemia, cholera, plague. Assistance in this is provided by Russian specialists. It is also important that Damascus signed the Convention on the Prohibition of Bacteriological Weapons, but has not yet ratified it.
But if nuclear and bacteriological weapons are more theoretical developments of the Syrians, they have much more success in the field of chemical weapons of mass destruction.
As you know, Syria had the largest arsenal of chemical weapons in the Middle East in past. This was done in order to ensure strategic parity with Israel, which means that the chemical component was the most important component of the country’s army.
The program was started in the 70s and was based on cooperation with European firms, from which the technologies of chemical production of dual purpose were obtained. The production of chemical warfare agents for the skin-blistering (mustard gas) and neurological-paralytic action (organophosphorus poisons) was established in Syria.
The objects of the chemical program were located in the region of Damascus, in Homs (gas VX), Hama (sarin, herd, VX) and Safir district, which is in Aleppo. The aggregate capacity of the MWD production was up to several hundred tons, most of which went to warehouses – mainly sarin.
At the same time, the country has a large arsenal of ballistic missiles capable of carrying warheads with chemical weapons. We are talking about the ballistic missile Scud with a range of 300 km, and Scud-D with a range of up to 700 km, capable of hitting targets in Israel. In addition, the Syrian Air Force has up to 1000 special bombs capable to carry a chemical component.
But if the Assad tribe did not risk to use chemical weapons against the Israel, its use went on in a big way in the civil war against their people.
In 2013, evidence began to appear about the use of chemical warfare agents during operations. Such cases were recorded in the Aleppo area, in the suburbs of Damascus – the Duma and Adra, near the cities of Zamalka and Khan-al-Assal.
In all cases, when the opposition accused the Assad regime of chemical attacks, the Russian government at the UN level sought to justify the Syrian army in every possible way and to shift the blame to the forces of the insurgents or “terrorists” as much as possible.
The point of no return for Assad was the events of use chemical weapons on August 21, 2013, when, according to the UN investigation, several rockets with warheads containing of about 350 liters of sarin-a poison agent of the neuromuscular type in total were launched on the residential areas of the suburbs of Damascus-Guta.
According to various sources, 1729 people died during the chemical attack, and a significant number of deaths were children. After the catastrophic chemical incident, 11 countries of G20 support US actions in Syria in its readiness to conduct an operation against the Syrian regime, which killing own people, even in the absence of a UN Security Council mandate.
“The evidence clearly indicates that the Syrian government is responsible for the attack … We call for a tough international response … which would send a clear signal that such atrocities can never be repeated. Those who committed these crimes must be punished”, – the statement clearly stated.
The European Parliament adopted a resolution on the situation in Syria at the plenary session on September 12, 2013 in Strasbourg. The document said: “… according to information from various sources, the Syrian authorities responsible for the use of chemical weapons. The use of chemical weapons in Syria is a war crime and a crime against humanity. In this regard, it is necessary to adopt clear, strong and accurately directed joint measures”.
It would seem as the reason for international intervention against the inhuman Syrian regime. But the Russians managed to “protect” their protégé then.
Russia proposed a plan providing for a phased process of eliminating chemical weapons in Syria. This country should join the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Then the official Damascus must declare all the places of storage and production of toxic gases. At the next stage, Syria should allow OPCW inspectors to enter its territory, and then decide who will destroy the chemical weapons reserves.
September 13, Syria signed the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. September 14, the US and Russia reached a framework agreement on the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons in Geneva. September 27, 2013, the UN Security Council adopted the relevant resolution 2118.
The Syrian authorities declared 23 objects with chemical weapons at that time. According to the Director General of the OPCW, Akhmet Uzumju, 41 facilities were functioning at these objects, including 18 chemical weapons production workshops, 12 storage depots, 8 mobile complexes for ammunition supplies with chemical warfare agents, and three other facilities related to chemical weapons.
The report notes that about 1,300 tons of warfare agents and precursors were stored on sites with chemical weapons of the SAR, as well as over 1.2 thousand unloaded rockets and mortar shells.
On June 23, 2014, it was announced that the last batch of chemical weapons was removed from Syria for further destruction. On 4 January 2016, the OPCW declared the complete destruction of Syrian chemical weapons.
But further events showed that the Assad government is very far from the humanistic ideals of completely getting rid of chemical weapons so dear to it.
The Kremlin’s trace in the new chemical program of Damascus
After the alleged total destruction of the chemical arsenal of Damascus, the events of April 4, 2017 in the vicinity of the city of Khan-Sheikhun, in the province of Idlib, broke out like a bolt from the blue. As a result of the air strike of the Syrian Air Force, the population was hit by chemical poisoning agents; at least 86 people were killed, and not less than 557 people got injuries.
As the main version, it was considered as a chemical attack by the Syrian army. On April 6, 2017, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced the initiation of an investigation into the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria. Conclusions of the OPCW were voiced on April 20, and it consisted in the fact that sarin or its analogue of nerve-paralytic action was used during airstrike.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the interview for the American television channel CBS expressed the opinion that the blame for the defeat of the Syrian population lies on Russia, because Moscow took responsibility for the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria and guaranteed a complete ban on its production.
April 19, 2017, an Israeli military representative anonymously told Reuters that Syrian military forces of Bashar Assad have up to three tons of chemical weapons. It turns out that Damascus and the Kremlin have deceived the world community and decided to hide some of the chemical weapons for future attacks against the opposition.
The Russian side hampered the investigation of the attack in Khan-Sheikhun, as soon as it could. As of the end of November 2017, the Russian delegation in the United Nations 11 times blocked draft resolutions on the extension of the mandate of the UN-OPCW mission with the aim of investigating new facts of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
In this regard, the permanent representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzia said that he could not support the “unbalanced” American project, although he was in favor of continuing the work of the Joint Investigative Mechanism.
But on November 22, 2017, Nebenzia called the UN-OPCW expert group “dead” and said that Moscow is ready to discuss the creation of a new mechanism. This is another trick to delay time and attempts to take off Assad, as well as Moscow itself, from the pressure.
In total, the joint investigation group recorded 33 chemical attacks during the civil war in Syria, in 27 cases proved the guilt of the troops of Assad, 6 cases have not yet been investigated. Damascus denies everything. They are supported by Russia, speaking to the UN as an advocate of the Assad regime.
Naturally, the results of the work of the JIR are not acceptable to Damascus and to Moscow. The Kremlin is particularly concerned that the unsightly details of its direct involvement in the new chemical program of Assad will become known.
On the one hand, according to the sources of the British edition of The Economist, voiced in October 2017, the Assad regime uncovered only 19 (according to other sources 23) places associated with the production of chemical weapons. In reality, there are more than 45 of them. Moreover, because of the conduct of military operations in Syria, probably not all chemical weapons were registered, and its part remained under the control of Assad.
On the other hand, Damascus could easily start building its chemical potential from zero point. The key stakeholders in this process are the DPRK, Iran and Russia.
As it became known on February 2, 2018 according to the UN classified investigation, North Korea sent more than 40 undeclared cargoes in the period from 2012 to 2017 destined for the scientific center in Syria, which controls the chemical weapons program in the country.
Two cargoes were intercepted by the services of unnamed countries. It is reported that cargo contained a tile that is not affected by the acid, which could be used to create a large chemical enterprise.
Cargoes went from the North Korean company KOMID, which was blacklisted by the UN Security Council as a supplier of weapons and equipment for its production since 2009. However, it can be ruled out that the DPRK was used only as a transit point. The Russians used this tactic earlier to hide the traces, organizing the supply of weapons to problem countries and terrorist organizations.
Concerning the synthesis of toxic substances and the production of precursors, analysis of soil samples from Khan-Sheikhun indicates that the sarin sprayed there could not be produced by an artisanal method, as Russians and Syrians try to say.
Zarin was made, firstly, under the conditions of a special factory with a high degree of technical equipment, and, secondly, by technologies, and from materials that the Syrian side had at its disposal. In other words, the Commission’s findings indicate not only that Assad is using chemical weapons, but also that Damascus’s declarations of its complete destruction are untrue.
Also, the Russians themselves provide the basis for speculation that sarin could have been delivered to the Syrians by the Iranians. According to the Russian political scientist-orientalist Grigory Melamedov, it is not known about chemical weapons from Tehran.
At the same time, he said that the chemical attack near Khan-Sheikhun most benefited for the Persians in order to weaken the Kremlin’s position in Syria. Russians are even inclined to believe that it was Iran, and its radical forces, such as IRGC and Hezbollah could use chemical weapons against civilians. What can you do to avoid suspicion, tspecially against the backdrop of the fact that evidence was found specifically for Russian involvement in the production of new Syrian chemical weapons. The remains of the Russian detonating fuze with traces of sarin were revealed In the vicinity of the village of al-Latamina after the next gas attack.
It turns out that the body shells of chemical shells dropped by Assad’s AF and fuzes to it are supplied by Moscow and without the availability of these high-tech products of Russian production, the use of chemical weapons would not have had the necessary effectiveness
Moreover, Moscow can also act as a financial donor for the resumed chemical weapons production program in Syria. In December 2017, the BuzzFeed published a journalistic investigation about how the Kremlin financed the development of chemical weapons for Assad.
The Cyprus FBME Bank was actively used by Putin’s associates for transferring tens of millions of dollars to the accounts of Syrian partners associated with chemical weapons development programs. This banking structure was founded by the Lebanese Fadi and Farid Saab, who are agents of Syrian intelligence.
In the fall of 2014, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on Issa al-Zeidi, a citizen of the Russian Federation and Syria, for being a front man of the Scientific Studies and Research Center, a firm that manages the Syrian President Asad’s chemical weapons program.
Al-Zeidi was also the founder of Balec Ventures, which had an account in FBME Bank. This company was not only straw company for financing the chemical program of Assad, but was also used to conduct operations for the purchase of Syrian oil from the fighters of ISIS through Hesco. In a word, interesting financial connections of Russians are traced, both with Syrian “chemists”, and for financial support to ISIS through their Syrian partners.
Thus, the international condemnation of the re-creation of the Syrian chemical monster is tightening more and more tightly around the Kremlin. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently said that he is getting “new very disturbing reports about the alleged use of chemical weapons” in Syria, and many residents of the country are still starving and deprived of medical assistance.
The criticism to delegates to the Paris International Conference on Investigating Crimes Related to the Use of Chemical Weapons added to the anti-Russian statements of US Secretary of State Tillerson and Pentagon Mattis, voiced in January-February 2018. Moscow was openly accused of covering the Assad regime, and, in particular, undermining the Joint UN and OPCW mechanism to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
The work of this structure is stopped, because of Russia’s veto. So, this once again underscores the reluctance of the Putin regime to let the world know the truth about the crimes of the Syrian regime, and, of course, its own role in the murders of thousands of Syrian civilians.