A Likely Story

Bashar al-Assad
Bashar al-Assad; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

In late June, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released a report on the April 4, 2017, nerve gas attack on the central Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, a civilian area under rebel control in which there was no fighting at the time. An estimated one hundred people died; another two hundred suffered from acute exposure to the gas. The OPCW’s report persuasively showed that the agent used in the attack was sarin. The investigators, who did not have access to the site, could not determine the method by which it was dispersed, but they concluded that “the exposure was likely initiated from a release in the vicinity of a crater in the road, located close to the silos in the northern part of town,” where eyewitnesses said a plane had dropped a bomb.

The OPCW’s fact-finding mission was established in a mandate by the UN Security Council that specifically limited its scope to “not include the task of attributing responsibility for the alleged use [of chemical weapons].” But nevertheless the report implicitly blamed the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is the only participant in the Syrian conflict capable of carrying out a nerve gas attack by air.

Assad’s most powerful international supporter has been Russia, which sent its forces into Syria in September 2015 to bolster his struggling regime. Within hours of the attack, the Russian Defense Ministry acknowledged that there had been a Syrian air force strike on Khan Sheikhoun, but claimed that it had taken place later in the day, in a different part of town, and targeted a facility in which rebels manufactured and stored shells containing toxic gas for use in Iraq. According to the Russian account, the explosion released these gases into the air, with lethal effect.

Russia is a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention and has largely eliminated its own chemical stockpiles. It has no obvious interest in the proliferation of chemical weapons, and supported the OPCW’s earlier effort to eliminate the Assad regime’s chemical stockpile following a sarin attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August 2013 that killed hundreds. The Russian government therefore, to avoid embarrassment, desperately needed an alternative explanation for the sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun, particularly since it must have known that the Syrian government was responsible: Russian military advisers were stationed on the airbase from which the plane carrying the chemical weapons had taken off.

The story the Russians came up with, however, makes no sense. Even if a facility like the one they described existed, it would not have stored sarin itself but rather its chemical components, which are combined only when loaded into a munition. An air strike on such a facility would not have released sarin gas but destroyed its component chemicals. Still, the story soon found Western backers. These included nominal Trump supporters with an affinity for conspiracy theories…



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