Pentagon investigating possible Russian attempt to cover up Syria gas attack
The Pentagon says it is looking into charges that Russia bombed a hospital in Idib province – site of the sarin gas attack on civilians – in order to cover up evidence that forces loyal to President Bashar Assad carried out the atrocity.
Tuesday's chemical weapons attack was the third time regime forces used such weapons since a 2013 pact with Russia to dismantle his chemical stockpile and the deadliest since a Syrian attack using weaponized chlorine bombs struck Idlib that year.
"We know the Russians have chemical weapons expertise in country," a senior military official said, noting any details regarding collusion between Moscow and Damascus on chemical weapon capabilities could not be discussed publicly.
"We are carefully assessing any information that would implicate that the Russians knew or assisted with this Syrian [chemical weapons] capability," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"At a minimum, the Russians failed to reign in Syrian activity" regarding the regime's chemical weapons program, the official told reporters at the Pentagon Friday. At worst, Moscow actively took measures to willfully destroy any evidence of Assad forces using chemical weapons.
U.S. intelligence officials spotted a Russian drone conducting aerial surveillance over hospital, which was being used as a casualty collection point for victims of the Idlib strike.
"Some hours later, the [drone] returned and the hospital was struck" by a conventional airstrike, the official said.
"We don't know who struck [the hospital], we do not have positive accountability yet," the official said. "But the fact that someone would strike the hospital – potentially to hide the evidence of a chemical attack … is a question that we are very interested in."
Moscow thus far has denied any involvement with the sarin attack or any subsequent strikes against anti-government targets in the area. Officials from the Russian Ministry of Defense on Friday said it was suspending communications with U.S. counterparts geared toward deconflicting operations in Syria.
Why Russia? The Russians have been accused of bombing several hospitals after particularly brutal air attacks on civilians. Their goal is to kill survivors who could tell international investigators what happened as well as eliminating physical evidence of the incident.
In this case, it was important to leave as few survivors as possible since it has been confirmed that the nerve agent sarin gas was used.
Unlike chlorine gas, which has commercial and industrial uses beyond being a weapon of mass destruction, sarin gas is created specifically as a weapon of war. That sarin was used on civilians in Idib suggests that the Obama administration's boasting of getting rid of all Syrian chemical weapons was premature.
In short, Assad and the Russians pulled a fast one on the naive former American president.
The tide of war was running against President Assad before the Russian intervention. Since then, Russia has used indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets as an effective weapon that has turned the tide against the rebels. Assad now seems headed for victory in the civil war, and he has Russia's willful violation of international law to thank for it.