Even for the president of Russia, the news from Syria is increasingly coming to resemble a choose your own adventure story, in which readers pick a starting point and entirely different narratives are woven from the same facts.
For Vladimir Putin, every aspect of the war in Syria begins with the premise that President Bashar al-Assad has been from the start of the uprising in 2011 an innocent victim, whose completely legitimate, Alawite-led government has been attacked by Sunni Muslim extremists, armed and funded by the Gulf states, Turkey and the United States.
So, when he was asked about the killing of more than 80 men, women and children by a nerve agent in rebel-held northern Syria last week, during an interview with a state broadcaster posted on the Kremlin’s website on Wednesday, Putin began by absolving Assad’s air force, which is supported by Russian personnel.
“Where is the proof that the Syrian government forces used chemical weapons? There is no proof,” Putin told Mir TV. “The same thing happened back in 2003, when a pretext was concocted to justify sending troops to Iraq.”
Asked to clarify his suggestion, on Tuesday, that the mass poisoning — and the images of its young victims that left Ivanka Trump “heartbroken and outraged” — might have been “a provocation,” staged to give the U.S. a pretext for attacking Assad’s government, Putin said that this was only one possible explanation for what happened last week in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.
“There are several versions, two of which I consider as priorities,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin translation. “The first is that the Syrian bombs hit a secret chemical weapons facility.”
After calling that hypothesis — which his own ministry of defense had presented as a definite fact last week — “quite possible,” Putin pointed to independent reports that “the terrorists have used chemical weapons” in Iraq, and then asked “why can’t they have them in Syria?”
(Putin’s case rests on the assumption that he’s speaking to someone unaware of the fact that the area of northern Syria where the mass poisoning took place last week is controlled by Qaeda-affiliated Islamist rebels, not the rival Islamic State group, which used an entirely different chemical agent in an attack in the Iraqi city of Mosul last month.)
“According to the second version,” Putin continued, “it was a staged provocation, a deliberate incident designed to create a pretext for increasing pressure on the legitimate Syrian authorities.”
While calling again for an international investigation of the incident, the Russian president failed to even mention the third possibility: that the Syrian military, which was implicated in the killing of hundreds of civilians with a nerve agent in 2013 outside Damascus, and bombed rebel-held neighborhoods of Aleppo with Chlorine gas as recently as December, did indeed drop a chemical payload on Khan Sheikhoun.
Given that so much of the open-source evidence of the attack’s aftermath came from activists more committed to overthrowing Assad than to the impartial reporting of facts, it is fair to ask for an investigation by independent experts. It is puzzling, though, that Putin keeps making this request even though the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won a Nobel Prize for removing Syria’s declared stockpile of chemical weapons, said last week that it had already opened an investigation.
As the Russian expatriate news site Meduza noted, Putin’s Mir TV interview also included the clearest expression yet that the Russian president might now be experiencing something like buyer’s remorse over the presidency of Donald Trump.
Asked if Russian-American relations are better now than when Barack Obama was in office, Putin replied: “We could say that at the working level, the degree of trust has dropped, especially in the military area. It has not improved and has probably worsened.”
Putin also confirmed that the Trump administration had alerted his government to the president’s plan to launch 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in retaliation for the suspected chemical attack.
“It was completely unexpected,” Putin said, “aside from the fact, of course, that we learned about it a few hours in advance.”