Accusations fly as crisis in Syria deepens
US claims Russians ‘tampered with’ evidence at strike sites
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.
Decisive … Theresa May sets off to deliver statement to MPs