Chemical weapons experts press for access to Syria attack site

Ns News Online DeskNs News Online Desk: International chemical weapons inspectors were due to start work on Wednesday examining the site of a poison gas attack the Syrian town of Douma pending a UN security check, Syria’s envoy to the UN said.

The ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, said UN security officers entered Douma at 3pm on Tuesday “in order to access the security situation on the ground” and if they deemed it safe, the work of inspecting the scene for evidence of chemical weapons use could begin on Wednesday. The expected arrival of the fact-finding mission from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) followed several days of delay and accusations that the Syrian regime and Russia were stalling.

The OPCW’s headquarters in The Hague said it did not comment on operational matters in order to protect the security of its staff. The attack last week, which killed at least 40 people, led the US, the UK and France to launch missile strikes on Saturday against three targets in Syria, which the three powers said were designed to degrade the remaining chemical weapons facilities of Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, said on Tuesday that the strikes on Syria had been carried out “for the honor of the international community”. France’s foreign ministry also said it was very likely that proof had disappeared from Douma, adding it was essential that the inspectors be given full access to the site.

Russia has insisted video and pictures of the chemical attack in the then rebel-held area were faked with the help of British intelligence. Moscow also said it had not put any barriers in the way of the OPCW fact-finding mission reaching the site.A group of reporters, many favored by Moscow, were taken to the site on Monday. They either reported that no weapon attack had occurred or that the victims had been misled by the White Helmets civilian defense force into mistaking a choking effect caused by dust clouds for a chemical attack. As many as 40 civilians died in the attack.

Igor Kirillov, the head of Russia’s radio-logical, biological and chemical protection unit, told reporters that roads still had to cleared of mines and debris, and UN security services would test them on Tuesday. “On Wednesday is when we plan the arrival of the OPCW experts,” he said at a press conference at the Russian embassy in The Hague.

The OPCW’s director general, Ahmet Üzümcü, had issued a statement on Monday saying his nine-person volunteer team of expert inspectors had yet to be deployed to Douma. Eleven days have passed since the attack, and some of the inspectors reached the Syrian capital, Damascus, five days ago.

A series of often conflicting reasons have been given for the delay, but some pro-Assad MPs said they objected to any inspectors coming from the US, the UK or France. Üzümcü said on Monday that Russia and Syrian officials had also spoken of “pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place”.

The UN denied the inspectors were waiting for permits from it to visit the site. Instead of doing so on Sunday, inspectors met the Syrian deputy foreign minister, Faisel Mekdad, in the presence of Russian security officials for three hours. They were also given the offer of meeting witnesses sent to Damascus from Douma, which is under the control of Russian and Syrian troops after rebel forces were ousted.

With trust between the western allies and Russia effectively nonexistent, and the credibility of many countries at stake, the two sides have been accusing each other of lies and propaganda. The US said it feared Russia was tampering with the site of the attack. After previous intelligence failures by Britain and the US in Iraq, there is an audience in the west for Russian claims of a staged attack . Western diplomats questioned how it had been possible for Russia to secure safe passage for selected reporters, but not weapons inspectors.

The OPCW team aims to collect samples, interview witnesses and document evidence to determine whether banned toxic munitions were used, although it is not permitted under UN rules to assign blame for the attack. The joint UN-OPCW team empowered to determine culpability for an attack was disbanded in November after Russia vetoed the renewal of its mandate, largely because it said the inspection team sometimes made judgments on responsibility without visiting sites in person.

Russia has asked for an open UN security council briefing on Tuesday on Raqqa, a former Islamic State stronghold that is now under US control, and the situation in the Rukban refugee camp in the US-controlled Tanf district. The aim is to show the US is badly mishandling the refugee crisis inside Syria, and contrast this with areas held by Russia. The diplomatic developments came as a commander of Syria’s pro-government alliance said the army had begun preparatory shelling for an assault on the last area outside its control near Damascus. Recovering the Yarmouk camp and neighboring areas south of the city would give Assad complete control over Syria’s capital, further consolidating his grip on power.

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