Russia and the Syrian regime have 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 over the weekend.
Russia and Syria had cited “pending security issues” before inspectors could deploy to the town outside Damascus, Ahmet Üzümcü, the director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, told a meeting of the OPCW’s executive council.
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”.
Speaking in parliament on Monday, Theresa May said Syria was being supported by Russia in attempts to conceal the facts of a chemical attack in Douma. The UK’s OPCW delegation tweeted: “Russia & Syria have not yet allowed access to Douma. Unfettered access essential. Russia & Syria must cooperate.”
Russia denied that it was to blame for a lack of access. The Russian deputy envoy at the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, said the obstacles were caused by the western bombing. “If you go to a site which was just bombed I imagine you might have certain logistic problems,” he said.
Earlier, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said the inspectors could not access the site because they did not have the appropriate UN permission. In response the United Nations said it had provided the “necessary clearances” for a fact-finding mission.
Russian military officials were at the site of the Douma attack days before the OPCW reached Damascus, leading to fears that the site might have been tampered with.
Kenneth Ward, the US ambassador to the OPCW, also raised these fears on Monday, drawing a denial from the Russian foreign minster, Sergei Lavrov, who told the BBC: “I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site.” Lavrov also reiterated the Russian line that any attack on Douma was “staged”.
The US launched military strikes, alongside UK and French forces, in the early hours of Saturday morning local time aimed at reducing the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons facilities.
Over the weekend the OPCW sent inspectors on a fact-finding visit to Douma to search for evidence and interview witnesses. Their arrival coincided with a Syrian military announcement that it had “purified” the region of eastern Ghouta, of which Douma is a part, after a two-month campaign that has killed nearly 2,000 civilians, following years of siege.
Western countries are making a push both at the OPCW in The Hague and the UN in the New York to secure wider diplomatic support for a clampdown on the use of chemical weapons in the Syria. The suspicion is that the Syrian government previously misled inspectors when it declared its entire chemical weapons stockpile had been disclosed and destroyed.
The UN security council’s 15 members will meet on Monday to discuss a call for a wider push to eliminate the covert Syrian government stockpiles.
The British envoy to the OPCW, Peter Wilson, put the Douma attack in a wider context of chemical weapons use in Syria during the war. The OPCW had recorded 390 allegations of the use of banned chemicals in Syria since 2014 he said, and a failure by the OPCW to act risked allowing “further barbaric use of chemical weapons”.
Syria joined the OPCW, the organisation tasked with monitoring adherence to a 1997 convention on chemical weapons, 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.
Russia is also challenging an OPCW finding that a nerve agent was found in an attack in Salisbury on the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal.
A joint United Nations-OPCW mission concluded the Syrian airforce was responsible for a sarin attack that killed nearly 100 people a year ago in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. The finding led Russia to object to the way in which the joint mission reached its conclusions, and to demand future changes in its methodology before its mandate could be renewed.
Wilson told the OPCW executive meeting: “The time has come for all members of this executive council to take a stand. Too many duck the responsibility that comes with being a member of this council. Failure to act to hold perpetrators to account will only risk further barbaric use of chemical weapons, in Syria and beyond.”
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