Ac­cu­sa­tions fly as cri­sis in Syria deep­ens

US claims Rus­sians ‘tam­pered with’ ev­i­dence at strike sites

The Guardian Weekly - - International News - Patrick Win­tour and agen­cies

Chem­i­cal weapons ex­perts were due to ar­rive in Douma this week to in­ves­ti­gate an al­leged poi­son gas at­tack, Rus­sia said, as the US voiced fears Moscow had al­ready “tam­pered with” ev­i­dence at the site.

Rus­sia and the Syr­ian regime had been ac­cused by west­ern diplo­mats of deny­ing chem­i­cal weapons in­spec­tors ac­cess to sites in the town of Douma, where an at­tack killed dozens and prompted US-led mis­sile strikes last week­end.

Rus­sia and Syria had cited “pend­ing se­cu­rity is­sues” be­fore in­spec­tors could de­ploy to the town out­side Da­m­as­cus, said Ah­met Üzümcü, the di­rec­tor gen­eral of the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Chem­i­cal Weapons (OPCW), at a meet­ing of its ex­ec­u­tive coun­cil on Mon­day.

Syr­ian au­thor­i­ties were of­fer­ing 22 peo­ple to in­ter­view as wit­nesses in­stead, he said, adding that he hoped “all nec­es­sary ar­range­ments will be made … to al­low the team to de­ploy to Douma as soon as pos­si­ble”.

Mean­while, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion de­layed ac­tion on sanc­tions against Rus­sians sus­pected of help­ing the chem­i­cal weapons pro­gramme, con­tra­dict­ing ear­lier re­marks made by the US en­voy to the UN, Nikki Ha­ley.

At the meet­ing on Mon­day, the OPCW di­rec­tor gen­eral, Ah­met Üzümcü, said his team of nine vol­un­teers had reached Da­m­as­cus but so far “the team has not yet de­ployed to Douma”. Syr­ian and Rus­sian of­fi­cials warned of “pend­ing se­cu­rity is­sues to be worked out be­fore any de­ploy­ment could take place”, Üzümcü said.

The US am­bas­sador to the OPCW, Ken Ward, claimed the Rus­sians had al­ready vis­ited the site and “may have tam­pered with it with the in­tent of thwart­ing the ef­forts of the OPCW fact-find­ing mis­sion”. The Krem­lin dis­missed the claims. “I can guar­an­tee that Rus­sia has not tam­pered with the site,” said the for­eign min­is­ter, Sergei Lavrov.

Syr­ian state me­dia early on Tues­day said air de­fence had shot down mis­siles over the cen­tral prov­ince of Homs, with the strikes re­port­edly tar­get­ing regime air bases. It was not known who car­ried out the at­tack, with the Pen­tagon spokes­woman Heather Babb say­ing: “There are no US or coali­tion op­er­a­tions in that area.”

The week­end mis­sile strikes by the US, Britain and France were in re­sponse to a chlo­rine and sarin gas at­tack in Douma on 7 April in which 40 peo­ple were said to have been killed. The mis­siles that US, French and Bri­tish war­ships fired on sus­pected chem­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties on Satur­day con­sti­tuted the big­gest west­ern at­tack against the regime in the seven-year war be­tween Syria’s pres­i­dent, Bashar al-As­sad, and forces at­tempt­ing to top­ple him.

The tar­geted sites were largely empty and were all said to be fa­cil­i­ties for chem­i­cal weapons stor­age or pro­duc­tion.

The UK prime min­is­ter, Theresa May, and the French pres­i­dent, Em­manuel Macron, have each faced a po­lit­i­cal back­lash for con­duct­ing the air strikes with the US.

West­ern coun­tries are mak­ing a push both at the OPCW in The Hague and the UN in New York to se­cure wider diplo­matic sup­port for a clam­p­down on the use of chem­i­cal weapons in Syria. The sus­pi­cion is that the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment pre­vi­ously mis­led in­spec­tors when it de­clared its en­tire chem­i­cal weapons stock­pile had been dis­closed and de­stroyed.

EU for­eign min­is­ters threat­ened new sanc­tions against Syria, but of­fered lit­tle sup­port among mem­ber states for fresh US mea­sures against Rus­sia. A joint state­ment from the 28 also fell short of whole­hearted sup­port for the US-led strikes.

Syria joined the OPCW in 2013 af­ter a sarin gas at­tack that killed hun­dreds of peo­ple in Ghouta. The move was part of a joint Rus­sian-US deal that averted mil­i­tary ac­tion threat­ened by the then US pres­i­dent, Barack Obama.

The OPCW needs a two-thirds ma­jor­ity to take de­ci­sions, and faces the threat of be­ing fa­tally weak­ened as Rus­sia and the west fight over the OPCW’s man­date to as­cribe re­spon­si­bil­ity for at­tacks. A Rus­sian veto at the UN last Novem­ber means the OPCW is em­pow­ered only to state if chem­i­cal weapons have been used, and not to at­tribute re­spon­si­bil­ity.

France urged OPCW na­tions to boost the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s work so it can com­pletely dis­man­tle Syria’s “secret” toxic weapons pro­gramme.

The trio that car­ried out the strikes warned they would re­peat the oper­a­tion if Da­m­as­cus used chem­i­cal weapons again.

Theresa May has warned that wait­ing for the United Na­tions to au­tho­rise mil­i­tary ac­tion in fu­ture would ef­fec­tively give Rus­sia a veto on Bri­tish for­eign pol­icy as she de­fended her de­ci­sion to join strikes against the Syr­ian regime.

The prime min­is­ter ac­cused Moscow of pre­vent­ing in­spec­tors from reach­ing the site of the chem­i­cal weapons at­tack on Douma and sug­gested that Bashar al-As­sad’s forces, backed by the Rus­sians, were at­tempt­ing to de­stroy ev­i­dence of the at­tack.

She faced down her crit­ics in a heated de­bate in the Com­mons in the wake of the atroc­ity, which she de­scribed as “a stain on our hu­man­ity”, in­sist­ing the UK had needed to act rapidly to pre­vent fur­ther at­tacks.

May faced wide­spread re­crim­i­na­tion for launch­ing strikes be­fore con­sult­ing par­lia­ment – al­though many of those MPs said they would have given her their sup­port – but she sug­gested the “se­cu­rity” of the oper­a­tion could have been com­pro­mised.

“I am ab­so­lutely clear that it is par­lia­ment’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to hold me to ac­count for such de­ci­sions – and par­lia­ment will do so,” she told MPs. “But it is my re­spon­si­bil­ity as prime min­is­ter to make these de­ci­sions. And I will make them.

“This was a lim­ited, tar­geted strike on a le­gal ba­sis that has been used be­fore. And it was a de­ci­sion that re­quired the eval­u­a­tion of in­tel­li­gence and in­for­ma­tion, much of which was of a na­ture that could not be shared with par­lia­ment.”

How­ever, Labour leader Jeremy Cor­byn said the strikes were “legally ques­tion­able” and that par­lia­ment should have been given the chance to ap­prove the ac­tion, which he sug­gested was at “the whims” of the US pres­i­dent, Don­ald Trump.

Cor­byn called for a re­newed diplo­matic ef­fort by the UK gov­ern­ment and its al­lies to bring peace to the re­gion – al­though the prime min­is­ter at­tacked his sug­ges­tion that diplo­matic ef­forts had not been ex­hausted.

May warned: “The leader of the op­po­si­tion has said that he can ‘only coun­te­nance in­volve­ment in Syria if there is UN au­thor­ity be­hind it’. The house should be clear that would mean a Rus­sian veto on our for­eign pol­icy.”

May, who spent more than three hours at the dis­patch box, de­nied that Britain had joined the US-led airstrikes at the re­quest of Trump, in­sist­ing it was the “legally and moral right” thing to do in re­sponse to the on­slaught which killed up to 75 peo­ple.

The prime min­is­ter pledged there would be a fur­ther diplo­matic push to bring the As­sad regime back to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble as well as a “full range” of po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic levers, to strengthen the ban on the use of chem­i­cal weapons.

May de­nied Cor­byn’s claims in a Guardian ar­ti­cle that the at­tacks had just de­mol­ished empty build­ings. She said the tar­gets in­cluded a sci­en­tific re­search cen­tre de­vel­op­ing chem­i­cal weapons, a chem­i­cal weapons bunker and com­mand post and a mis­sile base, as­sessed to be a lo­ca­tion of sarin gas.

The state­ment marked a new low point in diplo­matic re­la­tions with Rus­sia, al­ready poor in the wake of the Sal­is­bury at­tack, with the Krem­lin re­act­ing fu­ri­ously to claims that it was hin­der­ing the Douma in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

It comes af­ter Ken Ward, the US am­bas­sador to the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for the Preven­tion of Chem­i­cal Weapons (OPCW), ex­pressed con­cerns that the Rus­sians had tam­pered with the at­tack site with the aim of thwart­ing the weapons in­spec­tors’ mis­sion.

May cited in­tel­li­gence which showed that a “wider oper­a­tion” to con­ceal the facts of the at­tack was under way. Moscow strongly de­nied in­ter­fer­ing with the work of in­spec­tors, sug­gest­ing the in­ter­na­tional mis­sile strikes in re­sponse had made it dif­fi­cult for the OPCW to travel to the scene.

Af­ter the prime min­is­ter’s Com­mons state­ment, there was a fur­ther lengthy de­bate on the Syria ac­tion. It ended in a wholly sym­bolic vote called by the SNP on the mo­tion that the house “has con­sid­ered the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion in Syria and the UK gov­ern­ment ap­proach”, which the gov­ern­ment won 314 votes to 36.

Andy Rain/EPA

De­ci­sive … Theresa May sets off to de­liver state­ment to MPs

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