Prediction: Sarin Use in Syria

CNN: Putin claims intel shows more chemical attacks planned in Syria. Quoting Putin via CNN,

“We have information from a variety of sources that such provocations … are being prepared in other parts of Syria, including in southern suburbs of Damascus,” Putin said Tuesday during a news conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella.

It surprises that this is not accompanied by one of the favorite phrases of current journalism: “send a message.” When Putin sends bombers into the U.S. Alaska air identification zone,  he is “sending a message.” A U.S. cruise missile strike on al-Shayrat airfield “sends a message” to Putin. Everybody is sending messages, but apparently, the style is to be very coy.  Now Putin advises us to expect more gas attacks in Syria. But where is the verbiage? He’s not sending us a message?

The specific location mentioned by Putin, the Damascus suburbs,  is noteworthy. The Ghouta chemical attack was the first large scale use of nerve gas in Syria. To date, it accounts for about 80% of all the chemical casualties sustained in the entire Syria civil war.

 The munitions used in the Ghouta attack were rockets. Various web publications portray different degrees of certainty as to which side is responsible. As before, in Russia denies Assad to blame for chemical attack, I refer to the BBC article, Syria chemical attack: What we know, as  more reliable than freely editable open sources on this controversial issue. Quoting,

However, by examining the debris field and impact area where the rockets struck in Muadhamiya and Ein Tarma, the inspectors found “sufficient evidence” to calculate azimuths, or angular measurements, that allow their trajectories to be determined “with a sufficient degree of accuracy”.

When plotted on a map, the trajectories converge on a site that Human Rights Watch said was a large military base on Mount Qassioun that is home to the Republican Guard 104th Brigade.

So let’s print the obligatory phrase: Putin is sending us  a message. There are several reasons why he would be so kind:

  • He couldn’t stop attacks in the Damascus area even if he wanted to. Assad’s rockets cannot be seized, controlled, or interdicted by the Russians in Syria.
  • In other areas,  aircraft may be used. But an endgame for Russia in Syria is nowhere in sight.   The more Assad’s forces can accomplish themselves, the less the Russians will be needed. Against the incredible uncertainties of dealing with  jihadis on the political level, “Assad the victor” is the only compact line of reasoning of sufficient simplicity to pass the Kremlin’s version of Occam’s Razor.
  • The implication that Russia is involved in gas attacks in Syria is potentially very dangerous to Russia. It’s so dangerous, the counter-propaganda comes in advance of the events.

In Notes to Russia, Putin, Medvedev, et al. on Shayrat Airfield, I wrote:

There is danger to Russia in complicity with Assad. If it becomes viral in the Islamic populations of Russia and Central Asia that Russia is complicit in gas attacks, it could boomerang on Russia. …Such a viral idea could not be controlled even by state media. In your justified fear of the potential for jihadism in Russia, do not make your problems worse by creation of a viral myth.

It would be natural to couple the above with the Russian bomber flights to conclude that Putin is “sending a message”, a warning not to countenance a second strike. In Reuters: NATO seeks to manage Russia’s new military deployments; Old Russian Joke, I offer another interpretation. It is an instinctive fear response, like a lizard inflating its sagital crest, or an animal posturing to appear larger than it is.

The thing to recommend this so-called messaging is that it worked very well during the early phase of the Ukraine conflict. Putin’s posturing as the “crazy man” was actually amplified by some western news media looking for article hooks.  This happens too often, as with the hyping of the Russian’s pleasantly named “Satan” missile.

 Now, hopefully, Putin-the-crazy-man is stale schtick. But General McMaster’s NSC may soon be challenged with multitasking two problems:

  • Deterrence of Assad’s use of sarin delivered by primitive, cheap barrage rockets. There is no infrastructure to disable, save destruction of the rockets themselves, which is generally considered too dangerous.
  • The North Korea game, in which the stakes for our close allies and distantly sympathetic China are incomparably higher.

But thank you, Vladimir Putin, for letting us know.

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