Is Russia to blame for latest chemical weapons attack in Syria?

While such news out of that part of the world is notoriously hard to confirm, it appears that there’s been yet another significant chemical weapons attack in Syria. Initial reports are rather gruesome, with emerging videos reportedly showing the bodies of Syrian rebels “foaming at the mouth” and claims of a barrel bomb loaded with banned chemical munitions hitting an air raid shelter in Douma, a rebel stronghold near Damascus. (Washington Post)

Syrian doctors and rescue workers said Sunday that scores of people had died in an apparent chemical attack on a besieged enclave near Damascus, as government forces escalate their battle there.

At least 42 people were killed in the attack in Douma, the final rebel stronghold northeast of Damascus, according to the Syrian-American Medical Society.

The group, a Washington-based nonprofit medical relief organization that supports health facilities in the area, shared photographs of men, women and young children, apparently dead and foaming at the mouth. They said a barrel bomb packed with chemicals had hit an air raid shelter Saturday night.

The Syrians are, as usual, denying there were any chemical weapons used and writing it off as propaganda. Given their record, however, it’s difficult to take their claims seriously. The initial reports claim that dozens are dead with those numbers expected to rise.

The State Department put out an initial statement saying that we’re monitoring the developments closely and condemning any use of chemical weapons. The language in the statement is rather provocative on two levels. First, they’re calling for “an immediate response by the international community.” Beyond that, the State Department appears to be assigning the blame equally to both Syria and Russia. Here’s the key passage involving the Russians.

The Assad regime and its backers must be held accountable and any further attacks prevented immediately. Russia, with its unwavering support for the regime, ultimately bears responsibility for these brutal attacks, targeting of countless civilians, and the suffocation of Syria’s most vulnerable communities with chemical weapons. By shielding its ally Syria, Russia has breached its commitments to the United Nations as a framework guarantor. It has betrayed the Chemical Weapons Convention and UN Security Council Resolution 2118. Russia’s protection of the Assad regime and failure to stop the use of chemical weapons in Syria calls into question its commitment to resolving the overall crisis and to larger non-proliferation priorities.

The United States calls on Russia to end this unmitigated support immediately and work with the international community to prevent further, barbaric chemical weapons attacks.

Reading that a second time, it appears that State is actually assigning more blame to Russia than to Assad, the person who presumably ordered the actual attack and is stockpiling the banned weapons. If we were claiming that the Russians were supplying the weapons that would be one thing, but this statement suggests that Russia bears responsibility because they are an ally of Assad and are providing cover for him to commit such crimes.

Is this setting the stage for another attack on Syria? President Trump certainly wasn’t shy about going after them the first time they deployed chemical weapons after he took office. That would be understandable under the circumstances and most of our allies would get behind the response. But calling out the Russians adds a new wrinkle to the tale.

Trump has faced a lot of criticism for being “too soft” on the Russians, despite the huge sanctions imposed on them. Assuming this statement came from Trump (or at least had his approval) rather than being an independent move by John J. Sullivan, it might be an effort to show that he’s taking a hard line with Putin and dampen complaints that the two leaders are good buddies. Another bit of wild speculation: What if this didn’t originate with anyone in the State Department? John Bolton is in the house now and he’s not really much of a dove when it comes to responding to such military situations. Does this statement have his fingerprints on it?

Stand by for some sort of cruise missile or air-to-surface strike on Syrian weapons caches, likely with a bit of air support from some European allies. If Trump holds true to form, those could be coming as soon as the next 48 hours. And with Assad being an ally of not only Russia, but Turkey as well, this is going to complicate the mess we’re dealing with over there even more.