Tue | Aug 22, 2017

Official: Russia knew Syrian chemical attack was coming

Published:Tuesday | April 11, 2017 | 4:00 AM
In his photo April 4, 2017 file photo, provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group Edlib Media Center, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows victims of a suspected chemical attack, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria. (Edlib Media Center, via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP):

The United States has concluded Russia knew in advance of Syria's chemical weapons attack last week, a senior US official said yesterday.

The official said a drone operated by Russians was flying over a hospital as victims of the attack were rushing to get treatment. Hours after the drone left, a Russian-made fighter jet bombed the hospital in what American officials believe was an attempt to cover up the usage of chemical weapons.

The senior official said the US has no proof of Russian involvement in the actual chemical attack in northern Syria.

But the official said the presence of the surveillance drone over the hospital couldn't have been a coincidence, and that Russia must have known the chemical weapons attack was coming and that victims were seeking treatment.

The official, who wasn't authorised to speak publicly on intelligence matters and demanded anonymity, didn't give precise timing for when the drone was in the area, where more than 80 people were killed. The official also didn't provide details for the military and intelligence information that form the basis of what the Pentagon now believes.

Another US official cautioned that no final American determination has been made that Russia knew ahead of time that chemical weapons would be used. That official wasn't authorised to speak about internal administration deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The allegation of Russian foreknowledge is grave, even by the standards of the currently dismal US-Russian relations.

... US didn't know who operated the drone

Although Russia has steadfastly supported Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, and they've coordinated military attacks together, Washington has never previously accused Moscow of complicity in any attack that involved the gassing of innocent civilians, including children. The former Cold War foes even worked together in 2013 to remove and destroy more than 1,300 tons of Syrian chemical weapons and agents.

Until yesterday, US officials had said they weren't sure whether Russia or Syria operated the drone. The official said the US is now convinced Russia controlled the drone. The official said it still isn't clear who was flying the jet that bombed the hospital, because the Syrians also fly Russian-made aircraft.

US officials previously have said Russians routinely work with Syrians at the Shayrat airbase where the attack is supposed to have originated. US officials say the chemical weapons were stored there and that those elements add to the conclusion that Russia was complicit in the attack.

Last Thursday, 59 Tomahawk missiles were fired on the government-controlled base in the United States' first direct military action against Assad's forces.