Russia is blocking chemical weapons experts, says May
Here is how the governments behind the attacks on sites alleged to be used for chemical weapons purposes justified the strikes, writes David Williamson
THERESA May has accused Russia of preventing international inspectors from reaching the site of the Syrian chemical weapons attack as relations with Moscow deteriorated further.
A diplomatic storm erupted as the Office for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said Syrian and Russian officials had claimed there were “security issues” which prevented a fact-finding mission from reaching Douma, where around 75 people are thought to have died in the attack.
Russia suggested the missile strikes launched by the UK, US and France were part of the reason why the chemical weapons watchdog could not travel to the scene of the attack. It strongly denied interfering with the work of inspectors attempting to reach the site of the atrocity which the UK and
Western allies have concluded was perpetrated by the regime of Moscow’s ally Bashar Assad.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said relations between Moscow and the West were worse than at the time of the Cold War.
He said the UK, Nato and European Union had closed the normal channels of communication with Russia which provided safeguards against confrontation.
“I think it is worse, because during the Cold War there were channels of communication and there was no obsession with Russophobia, which looks like genocide by sanctions,” he told the BBC.
Updating MPs on the military action, the Prime Minister said it would not have been worth waiting for the OPCW’s findings in Douma because Russian vetoes at the United Nations meant no blame could be apportioned for the attack.
“Even if the OPCW team is able to visit Douma to gather information to make that assessment – and they are currently being prevented from doing so by the regime and the Russians – it cannot attribute responsibility,” she said.
Mrs May accused Russia and Syria of attempting to cover up the attack.
“The Syrian regime has reportedly been attempting to conceal the evidence by searching evacuees from Douma to ensure samples are not being smuggled from this area and a wider operation to conceal the facts of the attack is under way, supported by the Russians,” she told MPs.
At a meeting of the OPCW in The Hague, director-general Ahmet Uzumcu said the organisation’s team had arrived in Damascus on Saturday but “has not yet deployed to Douma”.
“The Syrian and the Russian officials who participated in the preparatory meetings in Damascus have informed the FFM (fact-finding mission) team that there were still pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place.”
The UK’s representative Peter Wilson said: “It is imperative that the Syrian Arab Republic and the Russian Federation offer the OPCW fact finding mission team their full cooperation and assistance to carry out their difficult task.”
He dismissed as “ludicrous” a Russian claim the UK had helped stage the attack in Douma, which killed up to 75 people, including a number of children.
He said: “Russia has argued that the attack on Douma was somehow staged, or faked.
“They have even suggested that the UK was behind the attack. That is ludicrous.”
He said Moscow was “spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation” to undermine the integrity of the OPCW’s fact-finding mission to Syria.
Russian diplomat Dmitry Polyanskiy said “all the obstacles” for the OPCW mission were the result of the US, UK and French “aggression” and the possibility of further strikes.
Mr Polyanskiy, Russia’s first deputy permanent representative at the UN, said: “If you go to a site which was just bombed I imagine you might have certain logistic problems. And there are no Western guarantees of no more strikes, only words.”
Relations between Russia and the UK have been plunged into the deep freeze following the nerve agent attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.
Mr Lavrov denied Russia had “tampered” with the site of the Syrian attack and insisted there was no proof that chemical weapons had been used.
The Russian foreign minister told the BBC: “There is no proof that on April 7 chemical weapons were used in Douma.
“I cannot be impolite to the heads of other states ... but frankly speaking, all the evidence they quoted was based on media reports and social networks.”
Mrs May’s decision to launch air strikes without parliamentary approval has led to criticism from MPs.
But she defended her decision not to recall Parliament, suggesting the “security” of the operation could have been compromised.
“The speed with which we acted was essential in co-operating with our partners to alleviate further humanitarian suffering and to maintain the vital security of our operations,” she said.
The decision required the evaluation of intelligence “much of which was of a nature that could not be shared with Parliament”.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn repeated his assertion that the military action was “legally questionable”.
There were cries of “shame” from the Tory benches as he told Mrs May she “is accountable to this Parliament, not to the whims of the US President”.
And shadow attorney general Baroness Chakrabarti questioned the Government’s justification for the airstrikes, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “You can’t use force under international law just to punish Syria for bad behaviour.”
But Labour former minister Chris Leslie was cheered by Tory MPs as he warned of the consequences of inaction, in what appeared to be implicit criticism of his party’s frontbench.
He said: “Pinpointing and degrading Assad’s chemical weapons was necessary and appropriate, and that intervening to save civilians from future gas attacks – while not without risk – was absolutely the right thing to do. Would the Prime Minister also agree that a policy of inaction also would have severe consequences, and that those who would turn a blind eye, who would do nothing in pursuit of some moral high ground should also be held accountable – for once – today as well?”
Mrs May replied: “I agree with him. Many people focus on the impact of action but actually inaction would have given a message that these chemical weapons could continue to be used by the Syrian regime and indeed by others with impunity and we cannot allow that to happen.”
Earlier, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson HAD insisted the strikes – co-ordinated with action by the United States and France – were “right for the UK and right for the world”.
Mr Johnson, speaking at a summit of European Union foreign ministers, stressed it was “not an attempt to change the tide of the war in Syria or to have regime change” and “the Syrian war in many ways will go on in its horrible, miserable way”.
“But it was the world saying that we have had enough of the use of chemical weapons, the erosion of that taboo that has been in place for 100 years has gone too far under Bashar Assad,” he said.
Four Royal Air Force Tornado GR4s joined the co-ordinated missile strikes at 2am on Saturday, launching Storm Shadow missiles at a base 15 miles west of Homs.
BRITAIN, the US and France risked the fury of Russia by striking three sites in Syria in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack.
The true test of whether the retaliation has “worked” is if it stops Bashar al-Assad’s regime from even contemplating using outlawed weapons against its foes.
What targets were bombed?
The UK, France and the US are understood to have fired 105 missiles at three sites.
The US fired 76 missiles at the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) in the north of Damascus. It is claimed this was a site specialising in “chemical and biological warfare technology”.
General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this was going to “set the Syrian chemical weapons programme back for years”.
Twenty-four missiles are understood to have been fired at the Him Shinsha site, west of Homs, including British Storm Shadow missiles. It was considered a primary site for Sarin production equipment.
The UK Ministry of Defence said it was used to keep chemical weapon “precursors” – chemicals that often have dual-uses but can be part of the blister agent or nerve agent production process.
The third target was the Him Shinsha bunker, which is said to have contained both a storage facility and a command post.
What evidence is there the Assad regime used chemical weapons? Theresa May sought to end doubts that Syria had used chemical weapons when she addressed MPs in the House of Commons.
She said that on Saturday, April 7, up to 75 people were killed in an attack in Douma, which was the last town held by rebels in the Eastern Ghouta district to the east of Damascus. The PM said UK medical and scientific experts “analysed open-source reports, images and video footage from the incident and concluded that the victims were exposed to a toxic chemical”.
Mrs May said the World Health Organisation received reports that hundreds of patients turned up at health facilities with “signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals”.
The Syrian American Medical Society (Sams) reported that more than 500 people, most of whom were women and children, were brought to medical centres showing such signs: “Patients have shown signs of respiratory distress, central cyanosis, excessive oral foaming, corneal burns, and the emission of chlorine-like odour.”
Mrs May accused the Russians of supporting a “wider operation to conceal the facts”.
The Syrian Government has denied using the weapons. Russia claims it has “irrefutable evidence” that the UK helped stage it. What do experts say?
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said the allegations were “credible and required further investigation” A factfinding team arrived in Damascus last week and the organisation wants to “deploy to Douma as soon as possible”.
The French Government said that an expert analysis of “testimonies, photos and videos” found the symptoms were “characteristic of a chemical weapons attack, particularly choking agents and organophosphorus agents or hydrocyanic acid”.
But Johnny Nehme, a chemical and biological expert at the International Committee of the Red Cross states in an article on the organisation’s website: “When I see a video or a picture, the first thing I think is that we cannot confirm anything... The only thing that allows us to confirm contamination by a chemical warfare agent is taking samples and analysing them in the lab.”
What chemicals were used?
The White House stated: “A significant body of information points to the regime using chlorine in its bombardment of Duma, while additional information points to the regime also using the nerve agent sarin.” Is it certain the Assad regime carried out the attacks?
The Prime Minister and the White House have attacked suggestions that other groups could have been responsible or that the reports are the result of a smear campaign.
The US said that the Syrian regime is the “only actor in Syria with both the motive and the means to deploy nerve agents”. It claimed there was no evidence to suggest Jaysh al-Islam, the last opposition group holding out in the region, had ever used chemical weapons.
The PM said that “open source accounts” report that so-called “barrel bombs” were used to drop the chemicals into the area.
She said: “Barrel bombs are usually delivered by helicopters... The opposition does not operate helicopters or use barrel bombs.”
She added that the Daesh, often called the Islamic State, “does not even have a presence in Douma”.
Is chlorine a regular component of chemical weapons?
The Washington Post reported that chlorine gas has been used “multiple times in the war”.
It stated: “Chlorine has industrial uses, too, and is not always considered a chemical weapon. However, if inhaled, it turns into hydrochloric acid in the lungs and can cause a person to drown from a buildup of fluids. It is less deadly than nerve agents such as sarin but can still kill.”
The OPCW considers chlorine a “choking agent” and notes that it was used in World War I, although it – like phosgene and hydrogen cyanide – is a key ingredient in “numerous commercial products”.
Is Britain being dragged into the Syrian war?
The PM is adamant this is not the case.
She told the Commons: “This was not about intervening in a civil war. And it was not about regime change.
“It was about a limited, targeted and effective strike that sought to alleviate the humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people by degrading the Syrian Regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their use.” Are the strikes over?
If the Assad regime launches further chemical attacks there will be strong pressure to hit its facilities once again, and harder.
President Trump has spoken of a willingness to “sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents”.
This would worsen already dire relations with Russia. President Putin has described the western strikes as an “act of aggression against a sovereign state which is in the front line in the fight against terrorism”.
Mrs May has repeatedly stressed the “limited” nature of the military strikes and stated that Britain will “work with our international partners on tough economic action against those involved with the production or dissemination of chemical weapons”.
However, many Opposition MPs argue that there should have been a Commons vote on whether to launch the attack and will be keen to ensure that a precedent has not been set for the Government to authorise military action without debate.
Plaid Cymru’s Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts stressed the need for a diplomatic strategy for Syria, saying: “The sight of children and adults suffering from the effects of chemical weapons calls out to all humanity for a humane response. But planning for war without planning for peace is anything but humane.”
> Damaged buildings in Douma, near Damascus, the site of the suspected chemical weapons attack
> Theresa May yesterday
> A combination of satellite images showing the Barzah Research and Development Center in Syria on Friday, April 13, 2018, top, and on Sunday, April 15, bottom, following the US-led allied missile attack