Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters on Tuesday that he had information to suggest that the US was planning to frame Syrian President Bashar Assad for a “false flag” chemical attack on a suburb of Damascus, Syria’s capital.
Putin, who made the comments during a joint press conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella, has slammed the US over President Donald Trump’s decision to target an airfield believed to have been used by Assad’s military to launch a deadly chemical attack early last week.
Putin was asked specifically about US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments on Tuesday morning. Tillerson had said Russia was either incompetent or had failed to hold up its end of the deal to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons, and it needed to choose whether to abandon or “maintain its alliance” with Assad.
Tillerson is expected to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow later Tuesday.
“President Mattarella and I discussed it, and I told him that this reminds me strongly of the events in 2003, when the US representatives demonstrated at the UN Security Council session the presumed chemical weapons found in Iraq,” Putin told reporters.
He added that Western nations that used to criticise Trump were now supporting his strike on Assad because they were “searching for a common enemy personified by Russia and Syria in order to restore their relations with Washington.”
Putin further said that the chemical attack carried out in Idlib province last week was a “false flag” and that he had information that a “similar provocation is being prepared” in a suburb of Damascus.
“We have reports from multiple sources that false flags like this one — and I cannot call it otherwise — are being prepared in other parts of Syria, including the southern suburbs of Damascus,” he said. “They plan to plant some chemical there and accuse the Syrian government of an attack.”
The “false flag” conspiracy theory echoes an op-ed published by the pro-Assad outlet Al-Masdar News last week arguing that Assad dropping chemicals on civilians “defies any logic” and that “terrorist forces have once again created a false-flag scenario” bearing a “resemblance to the Ghouta chemical weapons attack in 2013.”
The attack in Ghouta, Syria, left more than 1,000 civilians dead and resulted in a deal, brokered by the US and Russia, to destroy Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons. The bulk of Assad’s “declared” arsenal was shipped out of the country, but American officials “repeatedly returned to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons with intelligence reports on remaining chemical stocks,” The New York Times reported.
The Syrian government has denied dropping chemical weapons on civilians, and Russia, an Assad ally, has argued that a Syrian airstrike targeting terrorists in the area accidentally hit a warehouse controlled by rebel forces that had been stockpiling nerve agents. The gases dispersed and killed dozens of civilians when it was bombed, Russia has claimed.
Experts quickly cast doubt on that explanation. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, an expert on chemical weapons, told the BBC last week that Russia’s claim was “fanciful” and that it would be “unsustainable” for a nerve agent like sarin gas to spread as the result of a bombing.
Turkey’s health minister said on Tuesday that test results confirmed sarin gas was used in last week’s attack.
Dan Kaszeta, a veteran of the US Army Reserve’s Chemical Corps — the branch of the Army responsible for protection against chemical, biological, and nuclear threats — said an airstrike of the kind described by Russia would “not cause the production of large quantities of sarin.”
“Dropping a bomb on the binary components does not actually provide the correct mechanism for making the nerve agent,” Kaszeta said. “It is an infantile argument.”
US defence officials monitoring Syrian warplanes on military radar say they saw the planes take off and drop the chemicals, according to NBC. And a US official told The Associated Press on Monday that the US had concluded Russia knew in advance about the chemical attack.
Putin told reporters on Tuesday that Russia was “planning to address the corresponding UN structure in The Hague and call on the international community to thoroughly investigate all those reports and take appropriate action based on the results of such a probe.”