BEIRUT/NEW YORK (Reuters) – International chemical weapons experts will go to the Syrian town of Douma to investigate an alleged poison gas attack, their organisation said on Tuesday, as the United States and other Western powers consider taking military action over the incident.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday warned of a quick, forceful response once responsibility for the attack was established. The White House said Trump now will not travel on Friday to the Summit of the Americas in Peru so that he can focus on the crisis.
France and Britain were also discussing with the Trump administration how to respond to the incident. Both also stressed that who was to blame still needed to be confirmed.
At least 60 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured in Saturday’s suspected attack on Douma, then still occupied by rebel forces, according to a Syrian relief group.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and Russia, its main ally, said there was no evidence that a gas attack had taken place and the claim was bogus.
But the incident has thrust Syria’s seven-year-old conflict back to the forefront of international concern and pitted Washington and Moscow against each other again.
Aggravating the volatile situation, Iran, Assad’s other main ally, threatened to respond to an air strike on a Syrian military base on Monday that Tehran, Damascus and Moscow have blamed on Israel.
In Syria, thousands of militants and their families arrived in rebel-held parts of the country’s northwest on Tuesday after surrendering Douma to government forces. Their evacuation restores Assad’s control over the entire eastern Ghouta – formerly the biggest rebel bastion near Damascus.
SMELL OF GAS
The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said Syria had been asked to make the necessary arrangements for the deployment of an investigation team.
“The team is preparing to deploy to Syria shortly,” it said in a statement.
The mission will determine if banned munitions were used, but it will not assign blame. Doctors and witnesses have said victims showed symptoms of poisoning, possibly by a nerve agent, and reported the smell of chlorine gas.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Assad government and Russia both urged the OPCW to investigate the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma – a move apparently aimed at averting any U.S.-led action.
“Syria is keen on cooperating with the OPCW to uncover the truth behind the allegations that some Western sides have been advertising to justify their aggressive intentions,” state news agency SANA said, quoting an official Foreign Ministry source.
OPCW inspectors have, however, been attacked on two previous missions to the sites of chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said there was no threat of the situation in Syria resulting in a military clash between Russia and the United States. TASS news agency quoted him as saying he believed common sense would prevail.
On Monday, Trump told a meeting of military leaders and national security advisers in Washington that he would take a decision on a response quickly, and that the United States had “a lot of options militarily” on Syria.
“But we can’t let atrocities like we all witnessed … we can’t let that happen in our world … especially when we’re able to because of the power of the United States, the power of our country, we’re able to stop it,” Trump said.
Any potential U.S. strike is likely to involve naval assets, given the risk to aircraft from Russian and Syrian air defence systems. A U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer, the Donald Cook, is in the Mediterranean.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a number of other assets could be moved into position “in a short period of time” if needed.
Last year, the United States launched strikes from two Navy destroyers against a Syrian air base.
A European source said, however, that European governments were now waiting for the OPCW to carry out its investigation and for more solid forensic evidence from the attack to emerge.
Any plan by the United States and its allies to take military action were likely to be on hold until then, he said.
However, a U.S. strike similar to last year’s would not cause a shift in the direction of the war that has gone Assad’s way since Russia intervened on his side in 2015. Thanks also to Iran’s backing, his military position is currently unassailable.
At the United Nations, the United States has requested the Security Council vote at 3 p.m. (1900 GMT) on Tuesday on a proposal for a new inquiry on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, diplomats said.
The resolution was likely to be vetoed by Russia. Moscow told the 15-member council it will put two draft resolutions on Syria to a vote on Tuesday because it does not agree with the U.S. text, diplomats said.
At a meeting on Monday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Washington would respond to the suspected attack whether the Security Council acted or not.
“This is basically a diplomatic set-up,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“Russia will inevitably veto the U.S. resolution criticising Assad, and Washington will use this to justify military strikes,” he said. “A breakdown at the U.N. will also make it easier for France to justify strikes.”
France said it would respond if it was proven that Assad’s forces carried out the attack. British Prime Minister Theresa May talked to Trump on Tuesday and they ageed that whoever was responsible should be held to account.
Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused the United States, France and Britain of stoking international tensions by engaging in a “confrontational policy against Russia and Syria”.
“Russia is being unpardonably threatened. The tone with which this is being done has gone beyond the threshold of what is acceptable, even during the Cold War,” he said
Initial U.S. assessments have been unable to determine conclusively what materials were used in the attack and could not say with certainty that Assad’s forces were behind it.
A previous inquiry by the United Nations and the OPCW found the Syrian government used the nerve agent sarin in an attack in 2017, and had also used chlorine several times as a weapon. Damascus blamed Islamic State militants for mustard gas use.
Saturday’s suspected chemical attack came at the end of one of the deadliest Syrian government offensives of the war, with an estimated 1,700 civilians killed in eastern Ghouta in air and artillery bombardments.
Despite the international revulsion over the chemical weapons attacks, the death toll from such incidents is in the dozens, a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians killed since an uprising against Assad’s rule broke out in March 2011.
The deal over the rebel evacuation of Douma took effect on Sunday, hours after medical aid groups reported the suspected chemical attack
RIA news agency quoted Russia’s Defence Ministry as saying 3,600 militants and their families had left Douma over the past 24 hours. About 4,000 militants and their families are expected to leave, the pro-government Watan newspaper said.
Buses carrying hundreds of fighters, along with family members and other civilians who did not wish to come back under Assad’s rule, reached opposition areas near Aleppo on Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The departures will bring to an end the opposition presence in eastern Ghouta, giving Assad his biggest battlefield victory since late 2016, when he took back Aleppo.