We warned previously that something big is coming in Syria as the final showdown for al-Qaeda held Idlib looms with the Syrian Army and Russian aerial and naval forces taking position.
Pentagon and US officials continue pushing the gambit, setting the stage to play the "Assad is gassing his own people" card should so much as an inkling of a White Helmets allegation emerge, in an unprecedented level of telegraphing intentions for leverage on the battlefield.
And right on cue CNN has ramped up its coverage over the past of week of the "last rebel-held stronghold" in Syria, sending a hijab-covered reporter into the territory under rebel permission to interview civilians which CNN says Assad seeks to wipe out, possibly through sarin or other chemical attack.
Except the "rebel" coalition in control of this major "final holdout" is but the latest incarnation of al-Qaeda, calling itself Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and has held the province, the capital city of which is Idlib city, since a successful Western and Gulf ally sponsored attack on the area in 2015.
From National Security Advisor John Bolton's statements last week to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's "warning" to his Russian counterpart to Tuesday's State Department press briefing, where spokeswoman Heather Nauert reiterated reiterated to reporters the United States "will respond to any verified chemical weapons use in Idlib or elsewhere in Syria ... in a swift and appropriate manner"...
It now appears the US stands ready to respond militarily to even the most unlikely and flimsiest of accusations.
And why wouldn't Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham militants, now surrounded by Syrian and Russian forces and facing imminent defeat, redeem what's essentially the US offer to "call in the Air Force" against Assad's army? All they have to do is utter the words "chemical weapons attack!" to their friends in the Western media.
The Idlib campaign is predicted to be the bloodiest and longest grinding final battle of the war, and what should by now be obvious to all is this: Assad, on the verge of total victory has absolutely no incentive whatsoever to commit the one act that would ensure his own demise after arguably barely surviving seven years of war.
And at the same time the HTS/AQ "rebels" have every incentive to bring to fruition what US officials have this week so clearly laid out for them.
After all, it's happened before in Idlib, with not so much as an on-the-ground investigation to collect evidence to back the claim (usually the minimal investigative threshold for the UN and OPCW), as occurred in the April 2017 Khan Sheikhoun claimed "sarin attack" incident, which resulted in the first time President Trump ordered airstrikes on Syria. To this day the international chemical investigative body and watchdog, the OPCW, has yet to visit the site due to its being controlled by al-Qaeda forces.
Nauert said further on Tuesday that senior U.S. officials have engaged with their Russian counterparts "to make this point very clear to Damascus" — that chemical weapons "will not be tolerated" — and could meet with massive military response. She also repeated that Assad would be held responsible.
Meanwhile Russia has cited its own intelligence saying that Syrian armed groups in Idlib are preparing for a staged chemical provocation, which Moscow says the West will use to justify a strike against Syrian government forces.
Speaking to Newsweek on Monday, Syria analyst Joshua Landis said that there is every reason to doubt the veracity of past rebel claims regarding government chemical weapons usage — a surprising admission given his prominence as speaking from within the heart of the media foreign policy establishment.
Landis said, "I don't know what to make of the U.S. and Russian war of words over the potential use of chemical weapons in Idlib. The final reports on the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta were not definitive."
"There was no evidence found for the use of nerve agents, but controversy over the use of chlorine gas. The rebels had reason to carry out a false flag operation, as the regime and Russians suggested, but the regime refused to let U.N. inspectors in to test for chemical weapons until after a lengthy delay, which was suspicious," he concluded.