Inspectors denied access to site in Syria
Russian, Syrian forces deny access to site of suspected chemical weapons attack
Russian and Syrian forces blocked an international team from reaching the location of a suspected poison gas attack.
WASHINGTON — International inspectors sent to collect air, water and ground samples from the site of a suspected poison gas attack in Syria last week were blocked Monday by Russian and Syrian forces for security reasons, the watchdog agency’s director said.
The delay in obtaining independent confirmation of suspected chemical weapons use came as the White House postponed plans to add sanctions on Russia for what the Trump administration said was its support of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s poison gas program.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had said Sunday that new sanctions would be announced Monday, but the White House pulled back. “We are considering additional sanctions on Russia, and a decision will be made in the near future,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters.
She did not say if Haley had misspoken or if President Donald Trump had changed his mind to avoid worsening relations with Moscow.
The Trump administration has been taking an increasingly tough line on Russia even as the president has been reluctant to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin for his government’s meddling in the 2016 election and other actions.
The confusion emerged as nine inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons waited in Damascus for permission to visit Douma, a suburb east of the Syrian capital that was attacked on April 7.
U.S. officials say Assad’s forces killed more than 40 people, including children, with chlorine gas and possibly sarin, a banned nerve agent. But U.S. intelligence has been unable to collect ironclad evidence of which chemical agents were used.
U.S. and British officials have accused Russian units in Douma of trying to hide or tamper with evidence of the chemical attack, a claim Moscow denies.
Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said in New York that the OPCW team had all “necessary clearances” to collect samples in Douma.
But Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the OPCW, which is based in The Hague, said in a report to member states that Syrian and Russian officials had contended “there were still pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place.”
Uzumcu expressed hope the inspectors could visit Douma “as soon as possible.”
U.S., French and British forces fired more than 100 missiles at three targets in Syria early Saturday in retaliation for the Douma attack.
The three facilities developed, produced or stored chlorine or sarin, Pentagon officials said, and all appeared heavily damaged.
Syria has denied stockpiling or using chemical weapons, which are illegal under international law. Russia, which backs Assad, also has denied that a chemical attack occurred.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday repeated his government’s assertions that no chemical attack took place and said photographs and videos that showed people choking to death and other symptoms of chemical poisoning were “staged.”
Speaking to the BBC, Lavrov angrily condemned Washington’s attempts to blame and punish Russia, saying relations between the two countries were worse than during the Cold War.
Despite the unified support of the airstrikes presented by the international allies, British and French leaders faced skepticism at home from lawmakers.
Prime Minister Theresa May told restive lawmakers in London on Monday that the military mission against Syria was right both legally and morally.
The British government is not legally bound to seek Parliament’s approval for military strikes, although it is customary to do so, and many lawmakers expressed anger that they were not consulted.
May told legislators in the House of Commons that seeking their approval would have been impractical, both because Parliament was on a spring break until Monday and because some of the intelligence behind the decision was classified.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe also justified the military action in a speech Monday to the National Assembly, France’s lower house of parliament.
Some French opposition leaders have criticized the strikes, saying they were not legitimate.
A man rides Monday past destruction in Douma, site of a suspected poison gas attack.