After a relative calm of just over two months in Syria, reports of a chemical attack have surfaced a few days ahead of a crucial meeting that seeks a political solution to end the prolonged civil war.
The regime of Bashar al Assad accuses rebels of targeting civilian neighbourhoods in Aleppo city with a “poison gas” on Saturday.
Russia, the key backer of Assad’s regime, responded to the alleged attack by bombing opposition-held positions in Aleppo’s countryside, from where the regime said the gas attack was launched.
The Russian air strikes came after a long pause since Moscow and Turkey agreed to a ceasefire in October. Turkey backs the opposition in Syria.
General Igor Konashenkov, the spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, told journalists in Moscow that initial investigation shows that opposition fighters used shells filled with chlorine.
Delegates from Russia, Turkey and Iran are meeting this week on November 28 and 29 to discuss a possible political structure in Syria that would be acceptable to both the regime and opposition.
Details of the attack remain sketchy, however, especially after the initial reports of fatalities, as reported by a Russian news outlet, turned out to be false.
Citing the information coming out of Syria, the United Nations says between 50 and 100 people might have been treated for injuries.
Rebel group leaders have denied the allegation, saying the Assad regime is trying to find a reason to attack their last stronghold in Idlib.
Not the first time
Assad’s regime has hit civilian centres and opposition strongholds more than a hundred times, deploying different chemical weapons from lethal sarin to mustard gas, which disfigures the body and leaves lungs permanently damaged.
The previous OPCW investigations have documented multiple cases including the April 2017 sarin attack on the residents of Khan Shaykhun where 80 people were killed.
Experts have expressed doubts over the ability of rebels to make and store such high intensity chemical weapons.
“All the attacks we have seen have come from the air. So they have dropped in barrel bombs from helicopters and aircraft. And rebel forces don't have any of those,” Paul F Walker, a leading chemical weapons expert, told TRT World in an interview in September.
Only two instances where mustard agent was fired through artillery shells had been traced back to Daesh.
Chlorine is not on the prohibited list of chemicals since it has industrial applications.
Both sides have exchanged accusations of spreading fake news about chemical attacks in the past.
Idlib, the northwestern city near Aleppo, is the last stronghold for those who oppose the Assad regime. A military operation there was averted at the last moment in September.
Turkey has troops stationed there to man observatory posts that were set up as part of a deal between Turkey, Russia and Iran to stop the fighting.
Some reports suggest that the incident could be part of Russia’s tactics to pressure Turkey to let Russia and pro-Assad forces clean the province from radical militant outfits.
“Definitely there is pressure on Turkey. These kind of things have been happening since the deal was signed,” Talha Kose, a political science professor at Ibn Haldun University, told TRT World.
“There could be even some elements among the opposition groups who don’t want the peace deal to hold.”
Last year, Ankara, Tehran and Moscow agreed to create four so-called de-escalation zones in Syria as part of the Astana process, named after the Kazakh capital where they began the negotiations.
The zones included opposition-controlled areas where it was agreed that hostilities including air raids will be halted for a few months.
But earlier this year, Assad’s forces backed by Russian jets and Iranian militias took over three zones – eastern Ghouta, Homs and Daraa – in swift conquests.
Rebel fighters, their families and thousands of refugees were evacuated to the opposition-held Idlib.
Though the ceasefire managed to reduce violence and fatalities by a significant margin, occasional flare-ups between Assad's military and rebels have been reported from the region.
More than half of Syria’s 22 million population has been displaced in the seven-year civil war. More than 6 million have fled the country, 3 million of whom were forced to take refuge in neighbouring Turkey.
In the complex conflict, the line between radical militants associated with Al Qaeda offshoots such as Jabhat Fateh al Sham and the moderate armed opposition often gets blurred.
With a weakened opposition, the international community has slowly accepted the Syrian regime as a key player for any future settlement.
“I think everyone who opposed the regime has come to terms with the reality that it’s there to stay,” Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group told TRT World.
“On a personal level, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin might not get along with Assad, but there is no alternative [to the regime].”
The negotiations starting on Wednesday are part of the Astana process, which seeks to form a committee to draft a new constitution for the country.
But the 150-member committee hit a deadlock after the Assad regime opposed a list of civil-society representatives who were recommended by the outgoing UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura to be part of the process.
Earlier, Turkey, Russia and the European Union had set a deadline of December 2018 to kickstart the constitutional process.
“It’s a complicated situation. I don’t expect a breakthrough any time soon,” says Kose of Ibn Haldun University.