Moscow's mind-games are becoming deadly. It has just warned-off the United States from retaliating against a chemical weapon attack in Syria. But it hasn't happened yet.
Russia's Defence Ministry says it has evidence Syrian rebel forces are about to gas their own people in Idlib province — and put the blame at the feet of President Bashar al-Assad.
So why aren't they preventing this alleged 'false-flag' incident by bombing the rebels?
Instead, Moscow is telling the US and its allies to back off.
Russia's claims echo previous pro-Assad chemical attacks on the city of Douma in April which left scores dead and many more permanently scarred. The US, Britain and France unleashed a series of cruise missile and air strikes against Syrian government facilities after the chemical warfare 'red line' was crossed.
Moscow later insisted the chemicals had been deployed by Syrian rebels — disguised as 'White Helmet' rescue workers — against their own people to provoke the action. All available evidence, however, pointed to the canisters being dropped by Syrian government aircraft and helicopters.
This time, Russia appears to be attempting to head-off such overwhelming retaliation even before an attack has been made. And if it truly is a Syrian rebel attack on their own people to 'frame' Assad, Moscow's showing no signs of trying to prevent it — despite apparently knowing about the alleged plot in fine detail.
Russia's Defence Ministry issued a statement yesterday quoting unnamed sources saying that the Levant Liberation Committee is preparing an attack against civilians in the northwestern Idlib province.
It intends to blame it on the Syrian government, the Russian ministry claims.
Idlib is one of the last rebel held provinces in the country. Russian and Iranian backed Syrian government forces are advancing on the region.
Russian defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov alleges in the statement that the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is "preparing another provocation of the 'use of chemical weapons' by Syrian government forces against the peaceful population of the Idlib province."
He said the group delivered "eight chlorine tanks" to Jisr al-Shughur town in order to "stage" the attack and that these were later taken to a village eight kilometres away — Kafr Zita.
The statement also says a group of militants "trained in handling poisonous substances under the supervision of specialists from the private British military company 'Oliva'" arrived in the town a day earlier.
"The militants have the task of simulating the rescue of the victims of the chemical weapons attack dressed in the clothes of the famous 'White Helmets'," it said.
Konashenkov accused British special services of being "actively involved" in the "provocation" which will "serve as another reason for the US, the UK and France to hit Syrian government targets with air strikes."
The local council of Kafr Zita has reacted with fear — tweeting: "We appeal to international authorities to deter the (Syrian) government from using chemical and conventional weapons against the city."
Kafr Zita is in the adjoining Hama province, on the front-lines between rebel and government forces. It is close to the town of Khan Sheikoun, where a chemical weapons attack took place in 2017.
Fear and suspicion
The timing of the accusation has raised eyebrows among military analysts.
In Jerusalem last week, US President Donald Trump's national security adviser John Bolton warned Washington was "concerned about the possibility that Assad may use chemical weapons again."
"Just so there's no confusion here, if the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons we will respond very strongly and they really ought to think about this a long time," Bolton said.
And the comments came just one day after a senior US diplomat, ambassador William Roebuck, visited territory around US bases in Syria, stating the US was "prepared to stay" in Syria to defeat Islamic State, but was also "focused" on ousting Iran.
Moscow's claim that the source of the impending attack was the rebels itselves could be an attempt to back the US into a corner.
On the Mediterranean coast is the naval base of Tartus. Russia has been granted its use for its warships. Nearby is the Russian operated air base of Khmeinin. From here advanced Su-34 'Fullback' and Su-35 'Flanker' strike fighters, as well as the Su-25 'Frogfoot' attack aircraft, make regular forays against Islamic State — and US-backed Syrian rebels.
It could use the claim to actively oppose any effort by the US, Britain and France to strike Syrian military assets. And such a threat of a military clash could force the allies to back down from any military "response".
It's attempted to do so before.
It hasn't turned out so well.
In April, Moscow's forces attempted to 'run interference' during the cruise missile attack. One of its submarines reportedly engaged in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a British submarine as a cruise-missile armed US submarine slipped past, unnoticed.
Now, like then, Russia has vowed to shoot down any aircraft or missiles fired into Syria.
And since April, Moscow has deployed more advanced surface-to-air missile systems and their associated radars capable of achieving such a feat.
These are clustered about Russia's military bases in northwest Syria.
And then there was an incident where Russian mercenaries supported a Syrian assault across the Euphrated River demarcation line on a rebel enclave also housing US troops in February.
US heavy artillery and flying gunships opened fire on the Syrian-Russian forces near the city of Deir al-AZor after their position came under attack.
Several hundred Russians belonging to the security firm Wagner are believed to have been killed.
Speculation is increasing that pro-Syrian government forces want to use chemical weapons to 'soften up' rebel defences and break the spirit of local population ahead of a major assault.
Idlib is one of the so-called "de-escalation" zones set up as a result of talks by Russia, Turkey and Iran last year.
Few such anti-Assad rebel strongholds remain.
On a visit to Moscow on Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned Russia that backing a military solution in Idlib would be a "catastrophe" before meeting President Vladimir Putin.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the situation in Idlib is "multifaceted" and called for separating out "the healthy opposition from terrorist structures."
Damascus still holds the southeastern tip of Idlib, a strategically important province adjacent to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast that is home to Assad's clan.
More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Syria's war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
Iran-backed militias, including the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah movement, have also backed Assad's troops.
With help from them and Russian warplanes, Assad has recaptured around two-thirds of the country and is now eyeing the northwest province of Idlib.
"Idlib will return to the nation's bosom, and all Syrian soil will be cleansed of terrorism, either through reconciliation or ground operations," Defence Minister Abdullah Ayoub said yesterday.
He also slammed the United States, which has established military bases in Syria to fight the Islamic State group.
"The Americans are looking for a way to stay east of the Euphrates River to lock in their presence in this region," said Ayoub.