Russia is standing firmly behind the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, despite growing international outrage over the latest chemical weapons attack.
Russia’s attempts to blame the gas attack on rebel weapons reportedly angered the U.N. Security Council, per the BBC. Russia claims the Syrian government did conduct airstrikes against the town of Khan Sheikhoun, but the strikes accidentally hit a compound that was producing illegal chemical weapons for the rebels.
“Yesterday, from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm local time, Syrian aviation made a strike on a large terrorist ammunition depot and a concentration of military hardware in the eastern outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun town. On the territory of the depot, there were workshops which produced chemical warfare munitions,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konoshenkov said of Tuesday’s strikes.
The BBC reports this explanation was quickly dismissed by Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, as well as weapons experts and eyewitnesses to the attack. “Everyone saw the plane while it was bombing with gas,” a rebel commander stated, while journalists working in the area denied the existence of a facility like the one Konoshenkov described.
“I’ve seen absolutely nothing to suggest or to lead us to think that it is anything but the regime. And all the evidence I have – there may be more to come out on this – all the evidence I have seen suggest this was the Assad regime who did it with the foreknowledge that they were using illegal weapons in a barbaric attack on their own people,” Johnson said on Wednesday’s Good Morning Britain.
The United States also insists Syrian forces conducted a chemical weapons attack. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused Syrian ruler Assad of acting with “brutal, unabashed barbarism.”
Asked about Russia’s explanation for the gas attack, a senior White House official told Reuters: “We don’t believe it.”
The U.S., Britain, and France are seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the attack, but the Russian Foreign Ministry denounced the measure as “unacceptable” and based on “fake information.” According to Reuters, the Kremlin intends to press its case blaming the rebels and will veto any U.N. resolution against Assad. Russia has blocked seven previous U.N. resolutions to protect Assad.
Haaretz reports that Israeli security officials believe the chemical attack was “approved by the highest levels of the Syrian regime.” These sources said the assault was “intended to convey a threatening message to insurgent groups that have broken the cease-fire agreement over the past two weeks.”
Notably, Haaretz’s sources were not certain Assad himself signed off on the attack, allowing for the possibility that his senior officials felt free to improvise based on “growing confidence in the regime’s stability following military successes since the regime completed its takeover of Aleppo in December.” These security officials also did not know if Assad’s patrons in Russia and Iran were aware of plans to deploy chemical weapons.
Another noteworthy bit of intelligence from the Israeli sources is their belief that older chemical stockpiles, hoarded after Russia supposedly oversaw the destruction of Syria’s WMD, were used in the attack. Syria’s ability to produce new chemical weapons was supposedly destroyed, although the Israeli security officers thought it possible that Syria is attempting to restart one of its production facilities.
The BBC reports that victims of the attack have begun appearing in Turkey seeking treatment, and the World Health Organization said some of them have “symptoms consistent with exposure to nerve agents.”
The attack may greatly complicate Russia’s effort to preserve the Assad regime. Reuters reports that Britain and France have renewed their calls for his ouster, while America’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, called the Syrian government “illegitimate” on Wednesday.
“Assad, Russia and Iran have no interest in peace. The illegitimate Syrian Government, led by a man with no conscience, has committed untold atrocities against his people,” said Haley.
She also warned the U.N. response could threaten its own legitimacy: “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”