Syrian rebels planning chemical attack in Idlib to provoke US retaliation, Russia claims

Civilians are coming from rebel-held areas in Idlib province and entering regime-held territories through the Abu Duhur crossing, some of them returning to their villages that were recaptured by the regime forces earlier this year. (File photo: AFP)
Updated 26 August 2018
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Syrian rebels planning chemical attack in Idlib to provoke US retaliation, Russia claims

  • Russia said that Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham is “preparing another provocation of the ‘use of chemical weapons’ by Syrian government forces against the peaceful population of the Idlib province”
  • He said the group delivered “eight chlorine tanks” to Jisr Al-Shughur town

ANKARA: Militant opposition fighters in northern Syria are preparing a “staged” chemical gas attack, Russia claimed on Saturday, amid growing speculation that an Assad regime assault on Idlib province is imminent.

Moscow’s accusation comes after US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton this week said Washington will respond “very strongly” if Syrian President Bashar Assad uses chemical weapons in an offensive to retake Idlib, one of the last rebel held provinces in the country.

Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a statement that the extremist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham is “preparing another provocation of the ‘use of chemical weapons’ by Syrian government forces against the peaceful population of the Idlib province.”

He said the group delivered “eight chlorine tanks” to Jisr Al-Shughur town in order to “stage” the attack and that these were later taken to a village eight kilometers (5 miles) away.

The statement also said a group of militants “trained in handling poisonous substances under the supervision of specialists from the private British military company ‘Oliva’” arrived in the town a day earlier.

“The militants have the task of simulating the rescue of the victims of the chemical weapons attack dressed in the clothes of the famous ‘White Helmets’,” it said.

Konashenkov accused British special services of being “actively involved” in the “provocation” which will “serve as another reason for the US, the UK and France to hit Syrian government targets with air strikes.”

In April, the US, France and Britain launched joint missile strikes on Syrian targets in April in response to regime chemical weapons attack on the town of Douma.

Russia and Syria claimed at the time that the Douma attack had been staged by the opposition. Now the militant group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham is “preparing another provocation of the ‘use of chemical weapons’ by Syrian regime forces against the peaceful population of Idlib province,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on Saturday.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned the US against making any “reckless” moves in Syria. “We are hearing ultimatums from Washington ... and it does not affect our determination to continue our policy for the total elimination of terrorist epicenters in Syria and the return of this country to a normal life.”

Russia presented proposals last week to Turkish authorities on resolving the situation in Idlib, the last opposition-held stronghold, and talks between Ankara and Moscow have intensified in the past two weeks. 

Experts say Ankara is trying to prevent a regime assault on Idlib, and if it cannot be prevented, Turkey’s objective will be to prevent the targeting of moderate opposition groups and civilians.

Turkey, which hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees, has sounded alarm bells over a potential influx from the province, where about 3.5 million civilians live. The intensified diplomatic traffic between Moscow and Ankara is feeding speculation about a Russian-supported assault by the Syrian regime on Idlib in the near term.

In Jerusalem on Wednesday, Bolton said Washington was “concerned about the possibility that Assad may use chemical weapons again.”

“Just so there’s no confusion here, if the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons we will respond very strongly and they really ought to think about this a long time,” Bolton said.

Speculation is increasing that there could be a Russian-backed government assault on Idlib, one of the so-called “de-escalation” zones set up as a result of talks by Russia, Turkey and Iran last year.

On a visit to Moscow on Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned Russia that seeking a military solution in Idlib would be a “catastrophe” before meeting President Vladimir Putin.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the situation in Idlib is “multi-faceted” and called for separating out “the healthy opposition from terrorist structures.”

Damascus still holds the southeastern tip of Idlib, a strategically important province adjacent to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast that is home to Assad’s clan.

More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Syria’s war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.


Beirut praises ‘progress’ on maritime border dispute

Updated 21 May 2019
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Beirut praises ‘progress’ on maritime border dispute

  • Israel and Lebanon both claim ownership of an 860-square-kilometer area of the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Lebanon insists that the area lies within its economic zone and refuses to give up a single part of it

BEIRUT: Lebanon has hinted that progress is being made in efforts to resolve its maritime border dispute with Israel following the return of a US mediator from talks with Israeli officials.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield returned to Lebanon following talks in Israel where he outlined Lebanese demands regarding the disputed area and the mechanism to reach a settlement.

The US mediator has signaled a new push to resolve the dispute after meetings with both Lebanese and Israeli officials.

Israel and Lebanon both claim ownership of an 860-square-kilometer area of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon hopes to begin offshore oil and gas production in the offshore Block 9 as it grapples with an economic crisis.

A source close to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who met with Satterfield on Monday after his return to Lebanon, told Arab News that “there is progress in the efforts, but the discussion is not yet over.” He did not provide further details.

Sources close to the Lebanese presidency confirmed that Lebanon is counting on the US to help solve the demarcation dispute and would like to accelerate the process to allow exploration for oil and gas to begin in the disputed area.

Companies that will handle the exploration require stability in the area before they start working, the sources said.

Previous efforts by Satterfield to end the dispute failed in 2012 and again last year after Lebanon rejected a proposal by US diplomat Frederick Hoff that offered 65 percent of the disputed area to Lebanon and 35 percent to Israel. Lebanon insisted that the area lies within its economic zone and refused to give up a single part of it.

Satterfield has acknowledged Lebanon’s ownership of around 500 sq km of the disputed 850 sq km area.

Lebanon renewed its commitment to a mechanism for setting the negotiations in motion, including the formation of a tripartite committee with representatives of Lebanon, Israel and the UN, in addition to the participation of the US mediator. Beirut also repeated its refusal to negotiate directly with Israel.

Two months ago, Lebanon launched a marine environmental survey in blocks 4 and 9 in Lebanese waters to allow a consortium of French, Italian and Russian companies to begin oil and gas exploration in the area.