For the first time since his election, president Trump is set for a direct collision course with Vladimir Putin after Russia said on Wednesday it stands by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad despite widespread popular outrage over a chemical weapons attack which the media was quick to pin on the Syrian president, in a carbon-copy of events from 2013 which nearly launched a US invasion of the middle-eastern nation, when a YouTube clip - subsequently shown to be a hoax - served as proof that Assad had used sarin gas on rebels in a Damascus neighborhood.
As reported yesterday, Western countries including the US accused Assad's armed forces for the chemical attack, which choked scores of people to death in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in a rebel-held area of northern Syria hit by government air strikes. While Washington said it believed the deaths were caused by sarin nerve gas dropped by Syrian aircraft, Moscow offered an alternative explanation, claiming the poison gas had leaked from a rebel chemical weapons depot struck by Syrian bombs.
The strike, which was launched midday Tuesday, targeted a major rebel ammunition depot east of the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement. The warehouse was used to both produce and store shells containing toxic gas, Konashenkov said. The shells were delivered to Iraq and repeatedly used there, he added, pointing out that both Iraq and international organizations have confirmed the use of such weapons by militants.
The same chemical munitions were used by militants in Aleppo, where Russian military experts took samples in late 2016, Konashenkov said. The Defense Ministry has confirmed this information as “fully objective and verified,” Konashenkov added.
According to the statement, Khan Sheikhoun civilians, who recently suffered a chemical attack, displayed identical symptoms to those of Aleppo chemical attack victims.
Naturally, Syrian rebels disagreed: Hasan Haj Ali, rebel commander of the Free Idlib Army rebel group, and quoted by Reuters called the Russian statement a "lie".
"Everyone saw the plane while it was bombing with gas," he told Reuters from northwestern Syria. "Likewise, all the civilians in the area know that there are no military positions there, or places for the manufacture (of weapons). The various factions of the opposition are not capable of producing these substances."
The incident is the first time Washington has accused Assad of using sarin since 2013, when hundreds of people died in an attack on a Damascus suburb. At that time, Washington said Assad had crossed a "red line" set by then-President Barack Obama. Back then Obama threatened an air campaign to topple Assad but called it off at the last minute after the Syrian leader agreed to give up his chemical arsenal under a deal brokered by Moscow, a decision which Trump has long said proved Obama's weakness.
The latest incident, which comes at a very odd time - just days after the White House it will no longer pursue the ouster of Assad, cementing the Syrian leader's resolve not to do anything to infuriate the US administration - means Trump is faced with the same dilemma that faced his predecessor: whether to openly challenge Moscow and risk deep involvement in a Middle East war by seeking to punish Assad for using banned weapons, or compromise and accept the Syrian leader remaining in power at the risk of looking weak.
As reported last night, Trump described Tuesday's incident as "heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime", but also faulted Obama for having failed to enforce the red line four years ago. Obama's spokesman declined to comment. Washington, Paris and London have drawn up a draft U.N. Security Council statement condemning the attack and demanding an investigation. Russia has the power to veto it, as it has done to block all previous resolutions that would harm Assad.
As a result, all eyes will now be on Trump's response.
As Reuters puts it, "Trump's response to a diplomatic confrontation with Moscow will be closely watched at home because of accusations by his political opponents that he is too supportive of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has previously said the United States and Russia should work more closely in Syria to fight against Islamic State."
Should Trump engage, devolving relations between Russia and the US to a level last seen under the Obama administration, it will be interesting to watch the justification provided by the "Russia-hacking" conspiracy theorists.
Aside for US-Russia relations, the chemical attack in Idlib province, one of the last major strongholds of rebels that have fought since 2011 to topple Assad, will complicate diplomatic efforts to end a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of Syrians from their homes.
It is worth recalling that "Jihadist groups have a strong presence in Idlib alongside other rebel groups, some of which have received backing from powers including Turkey and the United States". It is in their interest to not only watch the conflict between Russia and the US escalate, but to do everything in their power to create false flag events that achieve this.
Finally, it is worth noting that over the past several months Western countries, including the United States, had been quietly dropping their demands that Assad leave power in any deal to end the war, accepting that the rebels no longer had the capability to topple him by force. The use of banned chemical weapons would make it harder for the international community to sign off on any peace deal that does not remove him, something that Assad - and the rebels - are all aware of. It goes without saying, that the Syrian president had the most to lose from launching a chemical attack just as both the military and diplomatic tide was turning in his favor.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who two months ago shifted his country's policy by saying Assad should be allowed to run for re-election, said on Wednesday that he must go. "This is a barbaric regime that has made it impossible for us to imagine them continuing to be an authority over the people of Syria after this conflict is over."
And now, all eyes on Trump.