Syria airstrikes force a critical question: What did Russia know about Assad’s chemical weapons?

The US warned Russia, then struck with these cruise missiles.
The US warned Russia, then struck with these cruise missiles.
Image: Specialist 3rd Class Robert S. Price/U.S. Navy via AP
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The US gave advance notice to Russia before the missile attack on Syria today, because president Donald Trump wanted to avoid hitting Russian forces who were assumed to be deployed at or around the Shayrat base in Homs province, the US administration said.

That will force the Trump administration to confront the possibility that Russia knew that Syria was still storing sarin nerve gas, despite Moscow’s assurances that it had removed all of it back in 2013. An even more striking question: was Russia aware in advance that Syria intended to launch the sarin attack on Idlib on April 4?

In a briefing for reporters, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson was blunt in his language against Russia. He noted that, in 2013, then-president Barack Obama retreated from plans to use French air forces to attack Syria because of a chemical attack. The reason was Russia’s assurances that it was removing all of Syria’s chemical weapons, and would prevent the country from stockpiling any more.

“Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement,” Tillerson said.

But given the seriousness of the US attack, and Russia’s entanglement with Syrian president Bashar al Assad, it is not clear whether Trump wants to know the answer. If he discovers that Russian president Vladimir Putin knew about the sarin, and that it might be used, Trump could be forced to treat him as a war criminal. Any chance of a detente with Russia—which Trump has sought—would be destroyed.