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

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.


Iraqi PM tightens government grip on country’s armed factions

Updated 17 September 2019

Iraqi PM tightens government grip on country’s armed factions

  • The increasingly strained relations between the US and Iran in the region is casting a large shadow over Iraq

BAGHDAD: Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is putting increased pressure on the nation’s armed factions, including Shiite-dominated paramilitary troops and Kurdish guerrillas, in an attempt to tighten his control over them, Iraqi military commanders and analysts said on Monday.

Military commanders have been stripped of some of their most important powers as part of the efforts to prevent them from being drawn into local or regional conflicts.

The increasingly strained relations between the US and Iran in the region is casting a large shadow over Iraq. 

Each side has dozens of allied armed groups in the country, which has been one of the biggest battlegrounds for the two countries since 2003. 

Attempting to control these armed factions and military leaders is one of the biggest challenges facing the Iraqi government as it works to keep the country out of the conflict.

On Sunday, Abdul Mahdi dissolved the leadership of the joint military operations. 

They will be replaced by a new one, under his chairmanship, that includes representatives of the ministries of defense and interior, the military and security services, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and the Ministry of Peshmerga, which controls the military forces of the autonomous Kurdistan region.

According to the prime minister’s decree, the main tasks of the new command structure are to “lead and manage joint operations at the strategic and operational level,” “repel all internal and external threats and dangers as directed by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces,” “manage and coordinate the intelligence work of all intelligence and security agencies,” and “coordinate with international bodies that support Iraq in the areas of training and logistical and air support.”

“This decree will significantly and effectively contribute to controlling the activities of all combat troops, not just the PMU,” said a senior military commander, who declined to be named. 

“This will block any troops associated with any local political party, regional or international” in an attempt to ensure troops serve only the government’s goals and the good of the country. 

“This is explicit and unequivocal,” he added.

Since 2003, the political process in Iraq has been based on political power-sharing system. This means that each parliamentary bloc gets a share of top government positions, including the military, proportionate to its number of seats in Parliament. Iran, the US and a number of regional countries secure their interests and ensure influence by supporting Iraqi political factions financially and morally.

This influence has been reflected in the loyalties and performance of the majority of Iraqi officials appointed by local, regional and international parties, including the commanders of combat troops.

To ensure more government control, the decree also stripped the ministers of defense and interior, and leaders of the counterterrorism, intelligence and national security authorities, and the PMU, from appointing, promoting or transferring commanders. This power is now held exclusively by Abdul Mahdi.

“The decree is theoretically positive as it will prevent local, regional and international parties from controlling the commanders,” said another military commander. 

“This means that Abdul Mahdi will be responsible to everyone inside and outside Iraq for the movement of these forces and their activities.

“The question now is whether Abdul Mahdi will actually be able to implement these instructions or will it be, like others, just ink on paper?”

The PMU is a government umbrella organization established by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki in June 2014 to encompass the armed factions and volunteers who fought Daesh alongside the Iraqi government. Iranian-backed factions such as Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah represent the backbone of the forces.

The US, one of Iraq’s most important allies in the region and the world, believes Iran is using its influence within the PMU to destabilize and threaten Iraq and the region. Abdul Mahdi is under huge external and internal pressure to abolish the PMU and demobilize its fighters, who do not report or answer to the Iraqi government.

The prime minister aims to ease tensions between the playmakers in Iraq, especially the US and Iran, by preventing their allies from clashing on the ground or striking against each other’s interests.

“Abdul Mahdi seeks to satisfy Washington and reassure them that the (armed) factions of the PMU will not move against the will of the Iraqi government,” said Abdullwahid Tuama, an Iraqi analyst.

The prime minister is attempting a tricky balancing act by aiming to protect the PMU, satisfy the Iranians and prove to the Americans that no one is outside the authority of the state, he added.