Syria’s Assad Has Gassed His Own People, Again

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Since Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad began gassing his people half a decade ago, his regime and its Russian enablers have tried to persuade credulous observers that the rebels were doing it to themselves. Now there is new evidence that, last month, the Syrian regime did exactly what it accuses the rebels of doing.

A newly declassified U.S. assessment of the incident, scheduled to be released today, will say a so-called chlorine attack on Nov. 24 was essentially a false-flag operation.

The assessment, which reflects the view of U.S. intelligence agencies and was shared with me before its release, says it was not a chlorine gas attack at all, but rather tear gas. What’s more, the U.S. now has “credible information that pro-regime forces” probably used it against Syrian civilians in northwestern Aleppo. It says they are “blaming the attack on opposition and extremist groups to undermine confidence in the ceasefire in Idlib.”

One piece of evidence the assessment cites, ironically, is the consistent narrative about the attack from Russian and Syrian media outlets: Reports agreed that chlorine-filled rockets or mortars against Syrian military personnel were fired by rebels from Idlib. In the past, after admittedly more serious chemical weapons attacks, it took more time for a consistent media narrative to emerge.

The statement also says a “technical analysis of videos and images of munition remnants of Russian-media portrayed mortars indicate they are not suitable for delivering chlorine.” Nor did witnesses describe the characteristic odor of chlorine bombs.

Finally, the Syrian regime has maintained control of the site of the alleged attack. The White House is worried that the regime could contaminate the site or fabricate samples to hand over to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The statement and its evidence are important not only because of what they say about Assad and his allies, but also because of what they mean for the fragile Syrian ceasefire. The Syrian regime used last month’s false-flag attack as a pretext to resume bombing of rebel positions in Idlib. A senior White House official tells me there is a concern that the fabricated attack in Aleppo might end up unraveling the ceasefire even more and force Turkey to respond.

Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, says he is grateful the Trump administration is making its conclusion public. The Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies “concocted” this incident last month as a pretense for a military action in Idlib, he says. Moustafa warns that the new offensive “could double the refugees to Europe and kill countless civilians.”

In Syria’s civil war, there is only one side gassing civilians: the government. The new assessment makes that abundantly clear. The regime and the rebels are not equally guilty, and anyone who says so is only emboldening the side actually using chemical weapons.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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