The chemical brothers: Putin and Assad

What would Russia’s support for Assad cost Vladimir Putin?

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on October 20, 2015

This week the world witnessed yet another chemical attack in Syria. After horrendous footage from Khan Sheikhoun showed children suffocating from sarin gas and relatives crying over piles of dead bodies, Russia was forced to react. But while Washington used the attack as an excuse for missile strikes on a regime-held airbase in southern Syria, Moscow did the exact opposite – it used it as an excuse for more excuses. And the excuse was produced quickly: The ministry of defence announced that there was no chemical attack but that a rocket had hit a stockpile of “terrorists'” chemical weapons, which led to the release of the poisonous gas.

To many Russian journalists, this explanation sounded familiar. In 1999 during another “counterterrorism operation” (the one that brought Vladimir Putin to the presidency), a Russian rocket attack hit the central market in Chechnya’s capital Grozny. Between 60 and 140 people died, hundreds were injured. The Russian authorities were quick to announce that the incident was caused by an explosion of a stockpile of weapons belonging to the “terrorists”.

Eighteen years later the Kremlin is using the same excuses, but this time not to protect itself but its ally Bashar al-Assad. But who are these excuses for? The international community would hardly believe them, given how absurd they are: Even if the Syrian opposition had stockpiles of sarin gas or a similar nerve agent, an air strike couldn’t have released the gas. The two sarin gas precursors are stored separately and are mixed only just before they are to be used. In other words, you would have the same success releasing sarin gas by bombing chemical stockpiles as you would making borscht soup by throwing a grenade into a vegetable market.

So clearly, the only audience that this lame excuse is intended for is the domestic one. Russian housewives who watch TV regularly are unlikely to go on Wikipedia to find out what sarin gas is. In principle, they wouldn’t have known about the chemical attack, if no one had told them, but in the era of the internet, controlling information is more difficult and therefore it’s better to have the excuse ready ahead of time.

But what is quite striking is that even the independent Russian media paid very little attention to the incident. While in other countries the chemical attack dominated headlines, in Russian media it was mentioned in passing, while on social media it was hardly discussed.

The war in Syria is of little interest to the Russians – whether those supporting Putin’s regime or those opposing it. And while the invasion of Ukraine provoked mass anti-war protests in Moscow other Russian cities, the Kremlin can rest assured that whatever war crimes it becomes complicit in in Syria, there will be no protests at home. That, of course, enables Putin to do a lot.

But what about reactions from the rest of the world? This is where Putin is facing potentially very bad consequences.

First, the chemical attack negates his major geopolitical achievement of the last few years: the 2013 agreement to destroy the chemical weapons of the Syrian regime. The success of this agreement was attributed to Putin and he, in some form or another, has been considered its guarantor. When the agreement was concluded, Republicans in the US praised Putin as an example of a strong leader and decried Barack Obama’s weakness.

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Source By http://www.aljazeera.com

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