(CNSNews.com) – Russia claims that opponents of the Assad regime are planning to use chemical weapons in rebel-held Idlib as a pretext to invite more U.S. airstrikes, but the State Department raised doubts Wednesday about the claims – while expressing concern about what they may portend.
Asked about Moscow’s claims that rebels in Idlib, including the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, are planning a chemical attack as a provocation there, department spokeswoman Heather Nauert dismissed them as “more false flag-type reporting.”
“We’ve seen that before, where they try to put the blame – they try to put the onus on other groups,” Nauert told a briefing. “And we don’t buy into that.”
U.S. diplomats met with Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov this week, “in part to raise concerns about what could happen in Idlib,” she said.
“You’ve read the Russian reports, you’ve heard their rhetoric, and so we’re concerned about what could potentially happen.”
“We have all seen what the Syrian regime, backed by the Russian government, has done in the past,” Nauert said in reference to previous chemical weapons attacks blamed on the regime, adding that it “should not be a surprise to anyone” that the U.S. would once again be concerned.
A day earlier, Nauert said both National Security Advisor John Bolton and chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford had spoken to their Russian counterparts, “to make it very clear that the United States government and its partners would respond to any verified chemical weapons use in Idlib, or elsewhere in Syria for that matter, in a swift and appropriate manner.”
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently named Idlib as the regime’s next priority as it claws back control of territory it lost earlier during the civil war.
Idlib is among the most strategically important areas of Syria still out of Assad’s hands, adjacent both to Turkey and to the port city of Latakia, which is controlled by the regime.
When rebels and civilians were transferred out of other parts of the country as regime forces took control, Idlib was their destination, so it is heavily populated by Syrians opposed to the regime.
Defense Secretary James Mattis was asked at the Pentagon Tuesday about concerns that the Syrians, abetted by Russia, would move chemical weapons into the area to use in the expected Idlib offensive.
He said the question “goes really to the heart of the issue” and noted that the State Department is in touch with the Russians, “to enlist them in preventing this.”
Mattis also pointed out that “you have seen our administration act twice on the use of chemical weapons.”
President Trump in April last year ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase which the administration linked to a sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, also in Idlib province.
A year later, after another chemical weapons attack in Douma near Damascus, he ordered a second and larger military response. U.S., British and French forces launched missiles from air and sea to target three regime chemical weapons-linked installations.
Russia and the Assad regime have repeatedly denied all use of chemical weapons, blaming rebels for provocations designed to draw outside military intervention.
In recent days, Russian and Syrian regime officials have warned that rebels in Idlib are planning to stage a fake chemical weapons attack.
Russian defense ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said the White Helmets would be involved in the deception, and that footage would be filmed to distribution to media outlets.
(The Russia-Syria axis has long accused the White Helmets, a volunteer rescue group working in rebel-held areas, of colluding with terrorists and of being involved in previous “staged” chemical incidents. The U.S. and others credit the volunteers with having saved tens of thousands of civilians’ lives during the conflict.)
Konashenkov claimed that the U.S. would use the purported incident being planned in Idlib as a pretext to attack regime targets.
In support of that claim, he charged that the U.S. Navy destroyer U.S. Ross – one of the two ships which launched 59 cruise missiles against Syria’s Shayrat airbase in April 2017 – had entered the Mediterranean on August 25, armed with Tomahawk missiles.
In fact the USS Ross, which has been forward deployed in Rota, Spain for more than four years, spends a significant amount of time in the Mediterranean and Black seas. It did not “enter” the Mediterranean on Aug. 25, but in recent weeks has made port calls in Agadir, Morocco (Aug. 14) and Toulon, France (Aug. 20), and carried out live-fire exercises in the Mediterranean (Aug. 22).
As the regime gears up for the push into Idlib, NATO confirmed a build-up of Russian warships in the eastern Mediterranean, shortly after Russia’s Izvestia newspaper cited defense ministry sources as saying a flotilla of at least ten ships is being deployed to near the Syrian coast.
The newspaper identified some of the vessels as a guided missile cruiser and anti-submarine destroyer from the Northern Fleet, two submarines, three frigates and a large patrol ship from the Black Sea Fleet, and smaller corvettes.
Some are armed with Kalibr cruise missiles, the same projectiles Russia has launched on previous occasions since late 2014, from ships and submarines in the Mediterranean and Caspian seas, supposedly at ISIS targets in Syria.
“The Russian Navy has dispatched substantial naval forces to the Mediterranean, including several ships equipped with modern cruise missiles,” NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said in an emailed statement early Thursday.
“Many NATO Allies border the Mediterranean, and our navies constantly operate there, so we monitor naval activity in the region, including that of Russia,” she said.
“We will not speculate on the intention of the Russian fleet, but it is important that all actors in the region exercise restraint and refrain from worsening an already disastrous humanitarian situation in Syria,” Lungescu added. “NATO is not present in Syria, but we support the efforts of the United Nations to achieve a lasting political resolution to the conflict.”