The rhetoric between the U.S. and Russia hasn't been more pointed since the end of the Cold War. Now, as it appears a coalition of France, the UK, and the U.S. could strike at any moment, Russia now claims that the United Kingdom was behind the deadly gas attack in Douma, Syria.
Russia says conclusively that the attacks were staged and that the footage of people being treated in its aftermath was actually of people who suffered "smoke poisoning." Supposedly two men have told Russia how the incident was staged.
The spokesman for Russia's Ministry of Defense, Major General Igor Konashenkov, stated the following today:
“Please, notice. These people do not hide their names. These are not some faceless claims on the social media by anonymous activists. They took part in taking that footage... The Russian Defense Ministry also has evidence that Britain had a direct involvement in arranging this provocation in Eastern Ghouta... We know for certain that between April 3 and April 6 the so-called White Helmets were seriously pressured from London to speed up the provocation that they were preparing.”
Kremlin mouthpiece RT.com wrote the following to describe the narrative the Ministry of Defense was trying to peddle:
According to Konashenkov, the group, which was a primary source of photos and footage of the purported chemical attack, was informed of a large-scale artillery attack on Damascus planned by the Islamist group Army of Islam, which controlled Douma at the time. The White Helmets were ordered to arrange the provocation after retaliatory strikes by the Syrian government forces, which the shelling was certain to lead to, he said... One of the interviews published by the ministry showed a man who said his name was Halil Ajij, and who said he was a medical student working at Douma’s only operational hospital. This is how he described the origin of the footage:
“On April 8, a bomb hit a building. The upper floors were damaged and a fire broke at the lower floors. Victims of that bombing were brought to us. People from the upper floors had smoke poisoning. We treated them, based on their suffocation."
Ajij said that a man unknown to him came and said there was a chemical attack and panic ensued. “Relatives of the victims started dousing each other with water. Other people, who didn’t seem to have medical training, started administering anti-asthma medicine to children. We didn’t see any patient with symptoms of a chemical weapons poisoning,” he said.
RT also mentions the UK's response to these allegations:
The UK rejected the accusations, with British UN Ambassador Karen Pierce calling them “grotesque,” “a blatant lie” and “the worst piece of fake news we've yet seen from the Russian propaganda machine.”
Russia's repeatedly pushed conspiracy theories similar to this narrative in the weeks leading up to the gas attack, saying that something similar would happen and that it would be a hoax that will serve as a pretext for an attack by the U.S. and its allies. Accusing the UK somehow of being involved with all this as revenge for the UK's claim that Moscow ordered the nerve agent attack on one of its former spies seems perfectly convenient. And beyond two guys who supposedly said the attack didn't happen, the Russian MoD has put forward no credible evidence to support its claims.
Russia went on to make the case that the international community should fall behind it because "Russia provides real help for real civilians in Syria, rather than hollow promises made by some western countries. Russia urges world community to join Russia and provide Syrians with necessary humanitarian aid."
Meanwhile, the Trump administration seems to have acquired enough proof regarding the source of the chemical weapons attack to satisfy its own threshold for launching an attack on Syrian government targets. Yesterday Secretary of Defense James Mattis seemed confident he knew who was behind the operation, but also cautioned that his main concern with executing punitive strike is that it could "escalate out of control."
Shortly after Mattis made those comments, it was reported that the U.S. had proof that chlorine and a nerve agent were found in the bloodstreams of victims of the gas attack in Douma. France has also said it had conclusive proof that Assad's forces were behind that attack.
Today, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders stated that the administration was confident Assad ordered the attack and that Russia is also to blame. Shortly after the White House press briefing, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said that the administration has proof to back up their assertions.
As for the UK, which had been timid about entering into a coalition with the U.S. and France without knowing more about the attack, Prime Minister Theresa May's concerns have been satisfied as a phone call between her and President Trump concluded that action has to be taken in order to "deter further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government."
While all this diplomatic posturing was occurring, there have been endless claims of military movements around the region, some of which are far better sourced than others. The American destroyer USS Winston Churchill has entered the 6th Fleet area of operations. The warship is likely to take up station in the eastern Medeterainian eventually alongside USS Donald Cook which is already there.
The Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group and Carrier Air Wing One have also deployed from Norfolk on their way towards the area. But it will be days before they will arrive off Syrian waters, and that's if it ends up even being the strike group's final destination.
There has been a constant presence of P-8s, RC-135s, and RQ-4s off Syria's coast. As we have mentioned before, these aircraft are building up an up-to-date electronic order of battle for Syria. This information, which includes the location, type, and activity of air defense nodes and sensors, is critical for mission planning for missiles and aircraft and drastically increases their chances of survival. Other intelligence products can also be obtained via these flights, including critical communications intelligence that can give unique insights into how the Syrian military and Russian military are reacting to events and preparing for a possible strike.
There have been many other reports of U.S. and allied capabilities moving into striking distance, but in reality, there is plenty of capability already there for such an operation and the ability to execute global strike missions with B-2 bombers from thousands of miles away should also be kept in mind. And no, American strikes do not only have to emanate from the Mediterranean. They can avoid the heart of Russia's high-end air defenses by attacking from the east. Cruise missiles can even fly over Lebanon deep into southern Syria and then hook northwestwardly to attack their targets. Even B-2s can sortie from Guam or from the U.S., possibly stopping in Diego Garcia, before prosecuting their targets from the east. And of course, there is plenty of U.S. air power based in Europe, Jordan, and the Persian Gulf as well.
Russian military movements have also made steady news in recent days, from Russian Navy ships supposedly vacating their berths in Tartus, Syria to Russia supposedly being allowed to use Iranian airspace and airfields for their heavy bombers. What exactly Russia would do with those aircraft is unknown as they would have a very hard time surviving America's persistent air patrols over eastern Syria. We have already talked in-depth about Russia's possible response to an American-led strike on Assad's forces and capabilities, which could include launching their own cruise missile attacks on forwarding operating bases used by U.S. backed fighters in the country.
As for the possible attack itself, it seems that Trump, May, and Macron have decided to do something, but when that something will occur remains a mystery. Currently, it is 1AM in Damascus and the weather is calm with sporadic clouds. The moon is only eight percent illuminated, and it will only be three percent tomorrow, which is the right conditions for use of B-2s and other low-observable platforms, and for special operations and combat search and rescue personnel to be able to do their jobs if called upon.
With all this in mind, the strikes could come as soon as tonight and we are standing by to cover it in unique 'marathon' fashion.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com