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

Western Mail - - FRONT PAGE - DAVID HUGHES and AN­DREW WOOD­COCK news­desk@waleson­line.co.uk

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

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