White House officials on Tuesday said they have strong suspicions that even as Syrian jets lifted off with ghastly Sarin-loaded bombs, Russia was aware of the horror about to be dropped on the town of Khan Sheikhoun.
Senior White House officials, who conducted a briefing on the attack on the condition of anonymity, described “with a high level of confidence” that Syrian warplanes dropped “at least one munition” loaded with Sarin that ended up killing about 86 people in the Syrian town April 4. They insisted that Russia and Syria had been running a disinformation campaign to create doubt internationally about the attack.
“The Syrian regime and its primary backer, Russia, have sought to confuse the world community about who is responsible for using chemical weapons against the Syrian people in this and earlier attacks,” said a document based on declassified intelligence that was released after the briefing.
The briefing provided a window into what U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is likely to tell the Russians during what is expected to be difficult talks in Moscow. Tillerson arrived in Russia shortly after the White House briefing and is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday. Russian news reports said no meeting is scheduled with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
How seriously American officials consider the possibility that Russia knew in advance that Syria was about to use a prohibited weapon against Khan Sheikhoun was difficult to gauge. Shortly after the White House briefing, press secretary Sean Spicer said there is “no consensus” in the intelligence community that Russia had advance knowledge of the gas attack.
In a separate news conference with reporters at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, declined to connect Russia to the attack. “It was very clear that the Assad regime planned it, orchestrated it, and executed it,” Mattis said. “And beyond that, we can’t say right now.”
But asked if the Russians knew about plans for the attack before it happened, one of the senior White House officials briefing reporters said “We do think it’s a question worth asking the Russians.” Another noted how closely the Russian and Syrian militaries have worked together, especially since Russia became an active participant in the civil war in 2015, including at the Shayrat airfield.
“How is it possible,” asked one of the officials, that the Russians “did not have fore-knowledge?”
The senior officials said that, while the use of chemical weapons has been a violation of international law since 1925, the Syrian government has been accused of using them 200 times in just the past three years. And they expressed concern that Syria might – even now – be planning other, similar attacks.
Syria has denied using chemical weapons. Russia at first labeled reports of a chemical attack “a prank of a provocative nature” then suggested the release of chemicals came after a regime airstrike hit a “terrorist ammunition depot.”
“Russia’s allegations fit with a pattern of deflecting blame from the regime and attempting to undermine the credibility of its opponents,” the White House document said. “Russia and Syria, in multiple instances since mid-2016, have blamed the opposition for chemical use in attacks. Yet similar to the Russian narrative for the attack on Khan Shaykhun, most Russian allegations have lacked specific or credible information.” Khan Shaykhun is an alternative spelling for Khan Sheikhoun.
The report noted that the Syrians were suspected of a chemical attack in Aleppo in October. At that time, Russia “claimed terrorists used chlorine and white phosphorus.” But “pro-Russian media footage from the attack site showed no sign of chlorine use. In fact, our intelligence from the same day suggests that neither of Russia’s accounts was accurate and that the regime may have mistakenly used chlorine on its own forces.”
The White House briefers provided new detail of what U.S. officials believe they know about the chemical weapons strike on Khan Sheikhoun, which prompted President Donald Trump to order U.S. Navy to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat base.
According the synopsis of U.S. intelligence on the attack, much of what U.S. officials say they know of the attack came from opposition media reports and video, which the synopsis said were too numerous to have been fabricated. “The Syrian opposition could not manufacture this quantity and variety of videos and other reporting from both the attack site and medical facilities in Syria and Turkey while deceiving both media observers and intelligence agencies,” the synopsis asserted.
The poison payload was carried by a Russian-made Su-22 attack aircraft, referred to by NATO as a “Frogfoot,” that took off from Shayrat, the document said. The aircraft was detected “in the area” of Khan Sheikhoun about 20 minutes before the chemical attack and then was seen departing from the area shortly after the chemical attack.
Contradicting Syrian government claims that an explosive struck a rebel store of chemical agents, the document said the bomb carrying the chemical landed in the middle of a street at 6:54 a.m. and left a small crater.
The document also said that “personnel historically associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program” were at the airfield in late March and “on the day of the attack.”
The document said “hundreds” of victims showed symptoms consistent with “Sarin exposure, such as frothing at the nose and mouth, twitching and pinpoint pupils” and that emergency responders “also had difficulty breathing . . . some lost consciousness.”
Syrian use of chemical weapons would not come as a surprise, despite its public pledge in 2013 that it had declared its chemical weapons stores and dismantled its chemical weapons program.
An April 7 statement from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the U.N. organization that oversees compliance with international chemical weapons treaties, said that questions have been raised about whether “Syria’s declaration about its chemical weapons program to the OPCW was complete and correct.”
The statement said a “team of experts” is in the process of working with “the relevant Syrian authorities to resolve the identified gaps and inconsistencies in the Syrian declaration.”
Jean Pascal Zanders, who edits The Trench, a website dedicated to efforts to eliminate chemical weapons, said in an interview with McClatchy that it would have been relatively simple for Syrians to assemble a Sarin weapon even after the destruction of much of Syria’s chemical weapons.
“One does not really need huge volumes of neurotoxicants,” he said. “This means that a few barrels of key precursors – forgotten, recovered from one of the places that have been inaccessible for OPCW inspectors because of the heavy fighting, or hidden – would have been enough.”
In the alternative, he said, Syrian “scientists and engineers could have manufactured a batch from scratch” and “easily modified existing weapons, such as conventional bombs or rockets, to carry a chemical payload.” He noted that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had modified weapons to carry chemicals even after Iraq had claimed to have dismantled its chemical weapons program.
Answering allegations that there was no reason for Syria to have resorted to chemical weapons, the White House document also provided a straightforward motive: Syrian government forces were facing an opposition offensive in northern Hama Province that “threatened key infrastructure.”
While Khan Sheikhoun is in Idlib province, the officials said the town provided support to rebel forces in Hama, and that the chemical weapons were used to attack an area that Syrian conventional forces could not.
Vera Bergengruen contributed to this report.