Men ride a motorbike past a hazard sign at a site hit by an airstrike in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. Photo: Reuters / Ammar Abdullah
Men ride a motorbike past a hazard sign at a site hit by an airstrike in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. Photo: Reuters / Ammar Abdullah

There is a rumor, flying around Twitter and the Internet, that General Mohammed Hasouri, the pilot of the Su-22 that dropped Sarin gas on the town of Khan Sheikhoun last week, was killed by a car bomb a few days later. Whether true or not, the Syrians are acclaiming the good work of the General for blowing up an al-Qaeda weapons dump, not decrying him for gassing civilians.

In a strange video shot at the Shayrat air base from which the Su-22 departed, one can see General Ali Abdullah Ayoub and his staff being treated to a look at the destruction that rained down on the base after it was hit by 59 US-launched cruise missiles. General Ayoub is the Chief of Staff of the Syrian army.

The video wraps up with General Ayoub congratulating the officer-pilots who carried out the mission. The first of these is General Hasouri, a man who was specifically trained to handle and use chemical weapons. Photos from the air base taken by RIA Novosti reporter Mikhail Voskresensky show numerous binary chemical containers stacked up close to one of the aircraft shelters that was hit by the cruise missiles. We don’t know from the photo whether the containers were stacked behind the shelter and therefore escaped damage, or were removed from the shelter after it was hit. What is known is that these are exactly the same containers the Russians use for chemical storage of binary weapons (nerve gas weapons) and which were seen by Western inspectors when the Russians carried out the destruction of their chemical stocks in the 1990s (as did the United States).

A pilot does not just drop a chemical weapon – and in any case the weapon in this case seems to have been a rocket-propelled, chemically-filled missile, probably supplied by Moscow (just like the containers and most likely the training of the pilots). The Shayrat air base has a number of Russians there – as many as 100 personnel. It seems probable that they were engaged in training and support for chemical weapons use.

A chemical weapon has to be launched so that the prevailing wind is right when the bomb hits the ground, so the chemicals do the maximum damage. The approach has to be at relatively low level, especially if the weapon is unguided. Otherwise it might miss the target, or even break up before it hits the ground. A sophisticated chemical bomb or missile will be set to explode only a few feet above the ground to disperse the chemical agent in the form of a mist. Less capable bombs and missiles simply shatter when they hit the ground and are less effective.

Hasouri was part of what the Syrians call Brigade 50. Most of the pilots and personnel in this brigade, judging from the video supplied by the Syrians of General Ayoub’s visit, are middle aged men, some balding, many with grey hair. It is untypical of a team that would normally fly fighter planes. US pilots are mostly in their 20s, and a top pilot may be in his early 30s​ (and most probably a junior officer)​. But middle aged? ​Generals?​ That is quite unusual. Does it mean that the younger pilots are already dead, or that this​ is a​ special group of people who could be trusted​ and​ are the core unit for chemical weapons ​operations​?

General James Mattis, the US Secretary of Defense, says that the US cruise missile attack on Shayrat has rendered the base of little or no use, particularly since it was used to refuel combat aircraft, a capability that was allegedly destroyed in the cruise missile attack. According to Mattis, around 20% of the entire Syrian fighter plane force was also destroyed in the strike.

According to information from Syrian sources, Gen. Hasouri’s plane not only hit Khan Sheikhoun but, as part of the same mission also hit a small town named Latamineh. We don’t have any further information on Latamineh, but it seems not as many were killed there as at the second target.

There are many unanswered questions. Why the Russians would have continued to support Syrian chemical weapons programs, as appears to have been the case, is a troubling matter on many levels. One senses there is a disconnect between what the Russian government wants and what the Russian military does. It is very unlikely that President Vladimir Putin would have sanctioned any sarin attack, not necessarily because of moral reasons, but because it would derail the Syrian peace process he is sponsoring and which he no doubt hoped the United States would buy into. Even beyond that, playing with sarin would undermine the carefully cultivated relationship Putin has developed with Israel. For Israel, chemical warfare is the first step on the road to nuclear weapons, and Israel would have no hesitation in flattening the entire Syrian air force if provoked any further.

We are left with the strong possibility that the Russian military is wagging the Putin dog. This is a very bad omen

In the midst of significant progress, it would make no sense for Putin to hang himself. Russia’s effort to cover up the blunder, even blame the attack on the rebels or on Turkey and possibily even bomb the hospital where the victims were being treated, does not change the bottom line: namely that such weapons were used and this pulled the rug out from under Putin. In fact, one can surmise that the Russian military and the Syrian government are cooperating behind Putin’s back.

Thus we are left with the strong possibility that the Russian military is wagging the Putin dog. This is a very bad omen as it raises potent questions about whether Russia’s political leaders are really the right interlocutors for the United States and NATO. Beyond that, one wonders if the various confrontations promoted by the Russian air force, army and navy against the West, in Easter Europe, in the North Sea, Black Sea and Atlantic are fully sanctioned by Moscow’s civilian leaders.

As Secretary of State Tillerson travels to Moscow, he needs to wonder whether the real power has moved on from Russia’s civilian leaders to its military? Because that would make his meetings beside the point.

Stephen Bryen

Dr Stephen Bryen has 40 years of leadership in government and industry. He has served as a senior staff director of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as the deputy under secretary of defense for trade security policy, as the founder and first director of the Defense Technology Security Administration, as the president of Delta Tech Inc, as the president of Finmeccanica North America, and as a commissioner of the US China Security Review Commission.

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