Showdown in Idlib: the Media War

RT is conducting a sustained campaign to pre-empt a chemical attack supposedly being organised by Western-backed forces in Idlib Province by elements within the rebel fighting force, Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS).

However, Jabhat al-Wataniyya lil-Tahrir (National Liberation Front/NLF), reported a convoy of vehicles carrying barrels containing chemical materials being transferred by the Syrian régime from Damascus to the countryside of Hama. A statement issued today by its spokesman, Naji al-Mustafa specified that 10 barrels left the “155th Brigade” barracks near Damascus last night, unloaded in warehouses in the town of Kitlun, and then transferred to another unknown place. NLF is the Turkish-backed umbrella group that merged  Ahrar al-Sham, the Syrian Hawks and the Free Syrian Army amongst others.

This statement comes after persistent Russian warnings of impending chemical attacks in the province of Idlib by rebel factions together with elements from the “Civil Defense” (White Helmet) units. The head of the Russian-Syrian Reconciliation Center, Alexei Siganakov, claimed that members of the White Helmets had transported a large load of toxic substances to a store in the town of Sarqab, under the control of Ahrar al-Sham. Earlier the White Helmets had also been identified by the Russians as associated with planned chemical attacks on Kafrzita and Jisr al-Shughur.

Al-Mustapha maintained that Russian announcements were fabrications that boded ill for local populations. Russia was thus fronting the Assad régime’s preparations for a chemical attack against civilians, as it had already done in previously documented events in Idlib Province and eastern Ghouta, with a sustained media campaign through RT news to soften up international opinion ahead of any atrocities. In an interview with Einab Baladi (The Grapes of my Country news site) yesterday, the director of the Civil Defense units, Raed al-Saleh, echoed al-Mustapha’s warnings about these Russian tactics, and rued the fact that they were not in a position to counter the media dominance of RT’s campaign.  

However, looking more closely at events, it looks like Russia rather than the Assad régime is the prime mover in the Idlib showdown. In of themselves, the latter’s threats against an area increasingly controlled by Turkey are empty without -that is -Russian agreement with Turkey on the diplomatic front. The Russian media campaign is also warning US/UK/French operatives working with and in HTS, of its planned eradication, as part of the same deconfliction protocol that the US/UK/France used during the last rocket attack. HTS has consistently opposed integration into the NFL, and poses a threat to nearby Russian bases because of itslinks with US, British and French intelligence. 

In fact, Russia is currently negotiating with the Turks about the best way to go about ending what Lavrov is now calling an “abscess“. The Turks have made their point that, in the case of Idlib Province, there cannot be the same kind of dumb scorched earth approach used so far in Syria. Their talks with Iran are reinforcing the point. But Russia is putting pressure on Turkey about HTS, and certain limited areas have been cleared by the Turks for an advance by Assad régime forces, one of which is al-Shughour bridge (Jisr al-Sughur), to allow the securing of the approach to the Khmeimim airbase on behalf of the Russians. In today’s world of sanctions, however, both Russian and Iranian geoeconomics depend crucially on Turkey, and weight will continue to be given to Turkish strategic concerns. The final picture will not emerge until the Russia-Turkey-Iran summit in Tehran on Sept 7th.

*N.B.: update in post: Sadr wins the recount: nothing changes but the mood sours (update)