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Another Jihadi defeat in Syria; another alleged chemical attack

Russia warns of “gravest consequences” if US military action happens

Smoke billows following reported air strikes by Syrian government forces on Damascus' north eastern rebel-held al-Qaboun surburb on March 15, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / AMER ALMOHIBANYAMER ALMOHIBANY/AFP/Getty Images

To anyone who has followed the Syrian war the news today sounds all too depressingly familiar.

After a series of advances the Syrian army has gained control of around 90% of the former Jihadi enclave of East Ghouta.  The last remaining part of the enclave still under Jihadi control – the town of Douma – is now entirely surrounded by the Syrian army save for a single humanitarian corridor, and the position of the Jihadis there has become militarily hopeless.

Following negotiations brokered by the Russians the Jihadis in East Ghouta appeared to agree to withdraw from Douma, and several thousand of them including their families actually did so.

However on Friday the remaining Jihadis in Douma stalled the withdrawal and broke off the negotiations.

Fighting then restarted and mortar attacks from Douma on Damascus from Douma resumed.

Today – one is tempted to say as ‘night follows day’ – the Western media is full of reports of a chemical weapons attack on Douma, though even the US State Department is admitting that the reports are unverified.

I am not a witness to today’s events in Douma, but nor are any of the Western journalists or Western commentators who are confidently talking of a chemical weapons attack there.

As I have frequently pointed out, it is actually impossible for Western journalists to report from Jihadi controlled areas in Iraq or Syria such as Douma because – given the sort of people the Jihadis are – they would not survive long if they did.

What that means is that all the reports of a chemical weapons on Douma are coming either from Jihadi sources or at second hand from groups known to be sympathetic to the Jihadis and their cause.

Those would not normally be considered reliable sources, and they should not be treated as such.

Whilst it was difficult to see a motive for the previous alleged Syrian chemical weapons attacks on East Ghouta in 2013 and on Khan Sheikhoun in 2017, it is frankly impossible to see any possible motive for the alleged Syrian chemical weapon attack on Douma.

With the Jihadis in Douma completely surrounded save for a single humanitarian corridor, and the town about to fall, what possible motive would the Syrian military have to launch a chemical weapons attack there?

Both the Syrian government and the Russians categorically say that no chemical weapons attack on Douma has taken place today, and frankly it is difficult to argue with the logic of what they say.

By contrast the Jihadis in Douma, with their backs to the wall, have an obvious incentive to claim that a chemical weapons attack has taken place in Douma.

It is known that the decision to withdraw from Douma was a controversial one amongst the Jihadis and that it provoked bitter arguments amongst them.

It seems that on Friday the hardliners prevailed and went back on an agreement that had previously been reached for the Jihadis in Douma to withdraw from the town.

Given that it is the hardliners amongst the Jihadis who over the last two days have regained the ascendancy, it is entirely understandable that they would want to claim that a chemical weapons attack had taken place in Douma, since provoking a US military response to rescue them in Douma is their only hope of clinging on to Douma.

It remains to be seen whether a US military strike does now take place. President Trump has issued a series of typically blustering tweets

However whether he will now follow up these tweets with a military strike remains to be seen.

His words “open area immediately for medical help and verification”, and the blame he is heaping on Obama for the situation in Syria perhaps suggest not, but Donald Trump is nothing if not unpredictable, and having responded with a military strike to the previous alleged chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun a year ago, the possibility has to be there that he will launch another strike.

The Russians for their part are warning of “gravest consequences” if military action is taken, and are pointedly reminding the US that Russian troops are in the area

It is necessary to once again caution that military intervention under false and fabricated pretexts in Syria, where the Russian servicemen stay at the request of the legitimate government, is absolutely unacceptable and may trigger the gravest consequences

The US military for their part have repeatedly made clear their extreme reluctance to become involved in fighting in Syria which may bring them into confrontation with the Russians.

Whether that is enough to deter Trump from a military strike – assuming he is set on one – is another matter.

Meanwhile the very latest reports from Douma suggest that the moderates amongst the Jihadis have regained the ascendancy after a further Syrian army advance, and that an agreement has again been reached for the Jihadis in Douma to withdraw to Turkish controlled Jarablus over the next 48 hours.

Not for the first time in the Syrian conflict the situation is fraught, with talk of another Great Power clash in the air.  The next few hours will show what Donald Trump is prepared to do.

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