SYRIA AND RUSSIA BAR TEAM FROM CHEMICALS WATCHDOG
Investigators blocked from Douma where gas attack killed at least 40
The British embassy to the Netherlands yesterday said Russia and Syria had not yet allowed members of a fact-finding mission to enter the site of a chemical attack in Syria.
A team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was expected to visit Douma in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta, where a chemical attack – reportedly using chlorine and sarin – killed at least 40 people and injured hundreds.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the claims were groundless and that Moscow was in favour of “an impartial investigation” into the attack.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that the only real obstacle faced by the organisation’s team in Syria was the “consequences of the illegal, unlawful military action” – a reference to the punitive air strikes carried out by the US, UK and France on Saturday morning.
Mr Ryabkov also said that the team could not have access to the site without an appropriate UN permit.
Meanwhile Syrian state TV broadcast interviews with doctors claiming they had found no trace of poisonous gas in Douma.
The watchdog was due to convene yesterday to discuss its team’s findings, as its inspectors examined the site in the Damascus suburbs.
Moscow has vowed not to interfere in the team’s work and criticised the US, saying the weekend strikes on three bases in Syria were a bid to “undermine the credibility” of the mission.
Mr Peskov also dismissed French President Emmanuel Macron’s claims that the weekend air strikes had driven a wedge between Ankara and Moscow.
The fallout from the US-led response continues to reverberate, with Mr Macron claiming to have persuaded President Donald Trump to keep his troops in Syria.
In London, British Prime Minister Theresa May told MPs during an emergency session in parliament that waiting for UN authority to take action over chemical weapons attacks in Syria “would mean a Russian veto on our foreign policy”.
The US-led strikes were the biggest international attack on President Bashar Al Assad’s regime since the start of the seven-year civil war.
They have risked confrontation with Moscow, Mr Al Assad’s top ally, with Mr Putin warning that more attacks would spark chaos, while Washington vowed economic sanctions against Russia rather than military action.
More than 100 US, French and British missiles destroyed suspected chemical weapons development and storage centres, in a move praised by Mr Trump as “perfectly executed” – although the buildings were mostly empty and Syria’s government and opposition ridiculed its lack of impact.
The team will also have to deal with the risk that evidence of may have been moved from the site attacked by the allies
The three western allies swiftly reverted to diplomatic efforts, with leaders facing strong criticism at home over the attack.
But their unity appeared to be shaken on Sunday when Washington rebutted Mr Macron’s claim that Paris had convinced Mr Trump to stay engaged in Syria “for the long term”.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the US mission had not changed and that Mr Trump wanted troops home “as quickly as possible”.
Saturday’s strikes came hours before the weapons investigators arrived in Damascus. They will face a difficult task, with all involved having pre-empted their findings, including western powers, which justified the strikes by claiming they had proof such weapons were used.
The team will also have to deal with the risk that evidence may have been moved from the site, which is in an area controlled by Russian military police for the past week.
“That possibility always has to be taken into account, and investigators will look for evidence that shows whether the incident site has been tampered with,” said Ralf Trapp, a consultant and member of a previous mission to Syria.
The watchdog declared that the Syrian government’s chemical weapons stockpile had been removed in 2014, only to confirm later that sarin was used in an attack last year in the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun.