Chemical inspectors launch probe in Syria after Western strikes

09:54 | 16/04/2018
A team of chemical experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague, arrived in Damascus hours after the strikes.
chemical inspectors launch probe in syria after western strikes
Men waive the Syrian flag on April 14, 2018 as they drive a motorcycle in a street in the Eastern Ghouta town of Douma after Syrian government forces retook the rebel bastion AFP/Handout

International inspectors launched their investigation on Sunday (Apr 15) into an alleged chemical attack near Damascus that prompted an unprecedented wave of Western strikes against Syria's regime.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, the regime's top ally, warned that fresh strikes would spark "chaos", but Washington promised economic sanctions on Moscow rather than further military action.

US, French and British missiles destroyed sites suspected of hosting chemical weapons development and storage facilities on Saturday, but the buildings were mostly empty and the Western trio swiftly reverted to its diplomatic efforts.

chemical inspectors launch probe in syria after western strikes
Details on types of weapons reportedly used by Britain, France and the United States during strikes on April 14 against targets in Syria. AFP/Thomas SAINT-CRICQ

US President Donald Trump lauded the "perfectly executed" strike, the biggest international attack on President Bashar al-Assad's regime during Syria's seven-year war, but both Damascus and Syria's opposition rubbished its impact.

A team of chemical experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague, arrived in Damascus hours after the strikes.

They have been tasked with investigating the site of the alleged Apr 7 attack in the town of Douma, just east of the capital Damascus, which Western powers said involved chlorine and sarin and killed dozens.

They arrived in Damascus on Saturday but there were no reports they had travelled to Douma to begin their field work, as announced by a senior Syrian official earlier.

chemical inspectors launch probe in syria after western strikes
Syrian soldiers inspect the wreckage of a building described as part of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) compound in the Barzeh district, north of Damascus, on April 14, 2018 AFP/LOUAI BESHARA

An AFP reporter saw Deputy Minister Faisal Mokdad enter the Four Seasons hotel where the chemical experts are staying and leave three hours later.

The fact-finding team usually starts its investigation by meeting top officials but any talks were held behind closed doors and both parties imposed a strict media blackout.

"We will ensure they can work professionally, objectively, impartially and free of any pressure," Assistant Foreign Minister Ayman Soussan told AFP.

The OPCW itself had declared that the Syrian government's chemical weapons stockpile had been removed in 2014, only to confirm later that sarin was used in a 2017 attack in the northern town of Khan Sheikhun.

INSPECTION STILL USEFUL?

The inspectors will face a difficult task, with all key players having pre-empted their findings, including Western powers, which justified the strikes by claiming they already had proof such weapons were used.

The OPCW team will also have to deal with the risk that evidence may have been removed from the site, which lies in an area that has been controlled by Russian military police and Syrian forces over the past week.

"That possibility always has to be taken into account, and investigators will look for evidence that shows whether the incident site has been tampered with," Ralf Trapp, a consultant and member of a previous OPCW mission to Syria, told AFP.

The Syrian military late Saturday declared Eastern Ghouta, the former rebel enclave of which Douma is the main town, fully retaken after a blistering two-month assault.

Wresting back the opposition stronghold on the doorstep of Damascus had been a priority for the resurgent regime.

US leader Trump hailed the pre-dawn strikes that lit up the sky around Damascus and exclaimed "Mission Accomplished" on Twitter.

chemical inspectors launch probe in syria after western strikes
The guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey fires a Tomahawk land attack missile on April 14, 2018 as the United States, Britain and France carried out a wave of pre-dawn strikes against Syria's regime AFP/Kallysta CASTILLO

That drew scoffing comments from his critics and parallels with the Iraq war and the premature victory speech his predecessor George W. Bush gave on an aircraft carrier almost exactly 15 years ago.

According to American officials, the operation involved three US destroyers, a French frigate and a US submarine located in the Red Sea, the Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean.

The US air force confirmed on Sunday that B-1B bombers deployed at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar took part in the strikes.

"LOCKED AND LOADED"

British Tornado and Typhoon warplanes, American B-1 bombers and French Rafale jets also took part in the strikes.

The Pentagon said no further action was planned but Washington's envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, warned that the US was "locked and loaded" should another gas attack occur.

Haley later told CBS that sanctions would be announced, most likely on Monday, against Russian companies supplying the Syrian regime.

British foreign minister Boris Johnson said the Syrian war would continue despite the "successful" strikes, saying the "overwhelming purpose" of the mission was to respond to repeated chemical attacks.

French President Emmanuel Macron insisted that "we have not declared war on the regime of Bashar al-Assad".

Putin told his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, also an Assad ally, that any new Western strikes in Syria would provoke "chaos in international relations".

The two leaders "found that this illegal action seriously damaged the prospects of a political settlement in Syria," a Kremlin statement said.

Assad denounced a "campaign of deceit and lies at the (United Nations) Security Council" after a push by Moscow to condemn the strikes fell far short.

Macron and other Western leaders have called for a diplomatic offensive after the strikes, aiming to end a conflict that has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced half of Syria's population.

A Western draft resolution obtained by AFP at a meeting of the UN Security Council Saturday calls for unimpeded deliveries of humanitarian aid and enforcement of a ceasefire, along with demands that Syria engage in UN-led peace talks.

But Russia has blocked countless resolutions against its Syrian ally and the regime has appeared determined to continue its military reconquest of the country.

"For all the sound and fury of these strikes, their net effect is a slap on the wrist of Bashar al-Assad," said Nick Heras, an analyst at the Centre for a New American Security.

AFP

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