Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
In a Salisbury restaurant – not far from the where the nerve agent Novichok had been used by what Britain suspects were Russian operatives – I had dinner where a man I at first took to be a bouncer turned out to be a magician.
Several times during our meal, he performed card tricks at our table. He was good: No matter how hard I looked, I could not catch his sleight of hand.
Something similar is happening in Syria right now.
Let me explain: Russia is preparing its biggest military exercises in close to four decades: 300,000 troops, 36,000 vehicles in its own far east.
Meanwhile, nine time zones to its west, Russia is shifting an unprecedented number of warships into the Mediterranean and Russian state media reported that the Russian navy and air force are set to hold large-scale exercises in the Mediterranean Sea in early September.
While the world is distracted by the destructive politics pitting Donald Trump against America’s establishment and other global leaders, an ugly undercurrent of events is sucking Syria back into a vortex of what could become one of the ugliest episodes in the country’s seven-year war.
An estimated half a million people have been killed, more than half the population has been internally displaced and millions have been thrust on neighboring nations as refugees.
Now, the final battle looms and a world weary of the continual carnage is looking the other way. But the tempo for the final phase of fighting is just picking up if you care to read the signs.
Phone calls between capitals and frosty diplomatic meetings have been coming apace this past week or so as well as a slew of Russian propaganda.
On Thursday, Russia’s Defense Ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, claimed that Syrian rebels in the last rebel stronghold of Idlib were preparing a chemical weapons attack they could blame on the Syrian government.
It’s a sleight of hand they’ve tried before.
In March, Russian defense officials made a similar accusation. One month later, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are suspected of using chemical weapons to kill dozens of Syrian civilians in a Damascus suburb.
British, American and French forces responded days later with a salvo of missiles on Assad’s bases.
Whenever the Russians say to look at the rebels, it’s worth keeping an eye on Assad.
But these are not the only hints that large-scale violence is about to return to Syria.
Idlib is the last of four of what the Russians have described as “safe zones.” Each one has fallen to an onslaught by Iranian, Russian and Syrian forces. They have picked them off one by one when they were ready.
They weren’t safe: They were simply stacked into a sequential series of offensives to be carried out whenever convenient for Assad.
An estimated 2.9 million civilians are in Idlib abutting the Turkish border. It was once home to 750,000. When the battle comes, the civilians will run – many toward Turkey.
It has become the de facto last major rebel holdout. Following every rebel defeat in the past few years, Assad has given rebel fighters and families safe passage to Idlib.
He has long vowed to take the territory – now home to an estimated 70,000 armed fighters, ranging from al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate to seasoned hardened rebel groups – from Salafist to secular.
The rhetoric between Moscow and the West was ratcheted up further on Thursday, with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warning the West not to “play with fire” in Idlib, while the UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said that the buildup to a Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive on Idlib amounts to the “perfect storm” that would lead to the “most horrific tragedy.” This came a day after State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said that US officials had met with Russian officials this week to warn against an escalation in Idlib.
In the past week, Moscow has hosted foreign ministers from Turkey and Saudi Arabia – both backers, in one shape or another, of Syria’s anti-Assad opposition.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken calls from both the British Prime Minister and the German Chancellor, conversations that – according to 10 Downing Street and the German Chancellery – focused on Syria and in particular the impact new US sanctions may have on Turkey’s ability to handle the latest waves of refugees.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis has also called his opposite number in Ankara to discuss Syria.
Behind the scenes, behind the distracting headlines each day, the drumbeat toward Assad’s next bout of butchery is beginning to break through.
Bizarrely, in Moscow on Wednesday, Russia’s foreign secretary accused the very rebels he and Assad have been busing to Idlib over the past two years of holding civilians there to ransom, accusing them of “trying to keep the civilian population hostage, use them as human shields.”
That was the rationale he gave for what is clearly coming: “This hotbed (Idlib) must be eliminated.”
Whether he said that to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he called him a week ago is unclear.
That day, Washington was abuzz with Trump’s latest tribulations: His friend, National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, had been given immunity by federal prosecutors in the Michael Cohen case.
The same day, Pompeo announced a new US special representative for North Korea, and that he and the envoy would soon be traveling there. There was nothing but a cursory readout of his conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
It was also the same day Trump seemed to try to draw attention away from Russia, which in itself was odd, considering his national security adviser, John Bolton, was meeting that day in Geneva, Switzerland, with his Russian counterpart.
A possible jibe at journalists, Trump later that day said Russia gets too much attention at the expense of other national security concerns.
It’s not clear whether he was intentionally distracting, or has himself been distracted.
But bottom line: An abundance of other stuff going on is clouding the view on a deadly storm in Syria about to be unleashed on its civilians.