The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia
The bodies of children killed in the August 21 chemical weapon attack| http://goo.gl/SvG3Hp

Russia Doubles Down On its Support for Assad

Russia's explanation for Syria's chemical weapons attacks is full of holes

Russia has been a staunch supporter of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Since the crisis in Syria began in 2011, Russia has repaired Assad’s attack helicopters, has delivered weapons and munitions to the Syrian regime, and has continuously blocked all actions by the United Nations Security Council, even when those actions only consisted of statements that condemned violent acts. Not only has Russia been impeding any international efforts to confront the Assad regime, it has been doing so by supplying Assad with the tools of war that he so desperately needs to beat the Syrian rebels.

Russia has also done its best to muddy the waters when it comes to the official narrative concerning what’s really happening in Syria.

For instance, today Russia’s foreign ministry has called for Assad to allow the United Nation to inspect East Ghouta, the site of this newest incident.

“The Russian side called on the Syrian government to cooperate with the U.N. chemical experts,” according to a statement from the Foreign Ministry in Moscow. “It is now up to the opposition, which should guarantee safe access for the mission to the alleged place of the incident.”

This statement ignores the fact that the opposition has called for the same inspections, and says that it is the Assad government that has blocked the UN inspectors, who were only 6 miles from the incident, to safely inspect the incident. Also, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, continues to press Assad to allow the access, and the opposition’s Syrian National Council continues to make the same request. Meanwhile, sources inside the Syrian Military Council, a leadership body in the rebels, suggest that unless the UN is able to inspect the Damascus site, then it may be unwilling to allow the UN inspectors to visit Khan al Asal, and area where Assad says the rebels used chemical weapons, and an area where the Syrian rebels have been trying to get UN inspectors into since before it fell into rebel hands.

In fact, the strongest rebel brigade in the area, Liwa al Islam, has reportedly stated that it will help facilitate the UN’s investigation if the Assad regime allows the inspectors to get that far.

In other words, the rebels are becoming frustrated that they have not received a single consolation, despite their best efforts, while the Assad regime is dictating the UN’s movements on the ground. It’s also worth noting that the UN has already agreed that it will not try to discern who was to blame for these incidents, another concession to both Russia and Syria. So Russia’s narrative here is the mirror opposite of what all the other players involve report.

Here’s the ultimate paradox in Russia’s thinking, however. Russia continues to claim that, without proper UN inspections, no one can conclusively blame the Syrian regime for these incidents because no party can truly understand what’s happened on the ground. At the same time, the Russian government continues to insist that, despite the fact that the UN has not investigated any alleged chemical weapons sites, Russia knows exactly what happened – the Syrian rebels did it.

Last month, Russia said that it had definitive evidence that Syrian rebels had fired homemade, crudely-constructed rockets, tipped with Sarin gas, at an Assad controlled area southwest of Aleppo, Khan al Asal. These statements came as a surprise to everyone. France, the UK, the US, and Israel all claim that evidence smuggled out of Syria suggests that sarin gas was used at this site and others. However, none of those countries has claimed that they could definitively prove that Assad was behind the strikes, though they suggested that this is the way their evidence was leaning. Russia, with no more access than these other countries, claimed that they had the evidence, and supposedly presented the sealed documentation to UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon.

In an investigation launched by The Interpreter into Russia’s claims, several problems are immediately apparent. The claims that a homemade, crudely constructed weapon could be an effective delivery system for a weapon as volatile as sarin flies in the face of the expert opinion of every arms or chemical weapons expert we’ve consulted. Furthermore, the Russian claims made no attempt to explain other claimed chemical weapons attacks, including one that was concurrent with the Khan al Asal incident.

In other words, despite Russia’s claims that they knew exactly what was happening in Syria, they didn’t seem to actually know that much, and if they did then they made no attempt to explain it to the rest of the world.

Now, Russia claims that this newest incident, which may be the worst chemical weapons attack since Halabja, was a “previously planned action” by the Syrian rebels. The New York Times reports:

“More and more evidence emerges indicating that this criminal act had an openly provocative character,” Aleksandr Lukashevich, a ministry spokesman, said in the statement. He said there were reports circulating on the Internet, with accusations against government troops, that were posted several hours before the incident. “So the talk here is about a previously planned action,” he said.

Lukashevich is trying to drop a bombshell with this statement. According to him, there are videos of the August 21st incident that were posted on August 20th. RT, another Kremlin-backed news source, has also suggested the same thing. “Voice of Russia” Radio, the Kremlin’s answer to “Voice of America” and “Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,” posts this screenshot of the opposition news outlet, Shaam News Network, that clearly shows a video that says it was filmed on the 21st but was dated “August 20″ by Youtube:

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The smoking gun? Actually, both VOR and Aleksandr Lukashevich seem to have forgotten that the world is round, and the sun shines on different ends of it at different times. The chemical weapons attack occurred in Damascus, an area with high-speed internet, at around 2 AM on August 21st. Syria is 3 hours ahead of UTC time. Youtube videos are timestamped in California’s time, UTC – 8. As such, the Syrian opposition could have been posting videos for nearly 11 hours before the timestamps read “August 21.” In fact, Storyful’s Open Newsroom has been investigating this and has found videos that were posted even earlier than the ShaamSNN video, that were also dated “August 20,” but that were still posted to Youtube well after the incidents occurred on August 21st.

See a timeline of the chemical weapons attack.

Here are the facts. Hundreds, maybe thousands, are dead in Damascus. The incident was extremely well-documented by citizen reporters. The videos were not posted before the time of the attacks. The incidents occurred inside rebel strongholds, and Assad troops, despite attacking those strongholds after the chemical incident, have not gained access to the area. From the other side, neither Russia, nor the UN, has been able to get permission from the Assad regime to inspect the site of the event. Without debating any of the rest of the evidence at this juncture, it’s clear that Russia doesn’t know any more than the rest of the world does. And based on their unwillingness to accurately present the facts or discuss their evidence in an open forum, it doesn’t seem like they’re even interested in finding the truth.

But here’s the bottom line. As Russia has failed to prove that the rebels are behind the incident thus far, they won’t convince many people with these arguments. The world is already divided into those who are for and against Assad. The UNSC is unlikely to get anything passed the Russian and Chinese vetoes. If the world is going to intervene in Syria, it will likely have to happen without the UN, because Russia is more defensive than ever when it comes to their support for the Assad regime, and that’s just not going to change.

And this news is just breaking:

 

So perhaps the U.S. knows more about what’s occurring in Syria than Russia after all.