Inspectors from the global chemical weapons watchdog have been unable to access sites controlled by Russia and the Syrian regime in the town of Douma to investigate an attack on 7 April that killed dozens and prompted US-led missile strikes on Friday night.
According to the UK delegation to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the OPCW’s director general briefed its executive council that inspectors had arrived in Damascus on Saturday but had not been allowed to visit Douma, a town just outside the Syrian capital.
“Unfettered access essential. Russia & Syria must cooperate,” the UK delegation tweeted.
Petter Lycke, Sweden’s representative at the OPCW executive council, said the director general told the council that Syria and Russia could not guarantee the safety on the ground. “Full access to the site must now be granted,” Lycke tweeted.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister said the delay was due to the US-led missile strikes. The foreign ministry also fiercely denied suggestions from the US at the OPCW meeting that Russia may be tampering with the site.
The US launched military strikes alongside UK and French forces aimed at reducing the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons facilities on Friday night.
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 later on Monday to discuss a call for a wider push to eliminate the covert Syrian government stockpiles.
Russian military officials were at the site of the Douma attack days before the OPCW reached Damascus. “It is our concern that they may have tampered with it [the site] with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW fact-finding mission to conduct an effective investigation,” Kenneth Ward, the US ambassador to the OPCW, said on Monday.
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 a sarin attack a year ago in the town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed nearly 100 people. 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 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.”