A team from the International Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) arrived Tuesday in the Syrian city of Duma to investigate an alleged chemical attack, but Westerners doubt that they can still find evidence on the spot.
Ten days after the alleged chemical attack, the official Syrian news agency Sana announced the arrival of “experts from the Chemical Weapons Commission” in Douma, where more than 40 people were killed by toxic gases on the 7th of April, when this city at the gates of Damascus was still in the hands of the rebels.
On 14 April, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, accusing Bashar al-Assad’s regime of being behind the attack, carried out strikes in Syria in retaliation.
Damascus and Moscow have denied any involvement, accusing the rebels of “staging” and demanding an OPCW mission to investigate “allegations”.
OPCW experts began their mission Sunday in Damascus, but had not been able to travel to Duma until then.
“Security issues in the Syrian city of Duma”
Russia and Syria had explained the delay with “security problems”, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied any ill-will, saying that there was “no basis” for reports of “obstruction” of experts.
But Westerners continue to display their doubts.
“The Russians may have visited the site of the attack. We are concerned that they have tampered with it in order to thwart the efforts of the OPCW mission, “said US Ambassador to the OPCW Ken Ward on Monday.
France also ruled Tuesday “very likely that evidence and essential elements disappear,” according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was “very surprised” by the comments, saying that Russia had come out in favor of sending “as soon as possible” an inspection of the OPCW to Duma.
The French ambassador to The Hague Philippe Lalliot said Monday that the priority, after the Western strikes in Syria, was to allow the OPCW the total dismantling of the “clandestine” Syrian chemical program.
In 2013, after a sarin gas attack near Damascus, which had already left several hundred dead by the West, the Syrian regime eventually joined the OPCW under international pressure and made the commitment to declare all its stocks and Never again use chemical weapons.
In 2014, the OPCW stated that Syria had got rid of its chemical weapons. But in 2017 a joint mission with the UN had concluded that Damascus had used sarin gas against Khan Cheikhoun (north-west) where 80 people had perished.
It is in this tense context that the Syrian media announced on the night of Monday to Tuesday an “aggression”, claiming to have shot down missiles, before retracting.
“A false alarm concerning an airspace violation during the night triggered the sirens of air defense,” Sana said.
The announcement comes three days after the Western strikes on Syria that “do not settle anything,” said Tuesday French President Emmanuel Macron.
The three Western powers intervened for “the honor of the international community,” he told the European Parliament.
Turkey, which supports Syrian rebels and saw these strikes as an “appropriate” response, said it would continue its “joint efforts” with Russia and Iran, another ally of Damascus, for a solution. “As part of the Astana process”, according to Turkish sources.
This process, sponsored by Ankara, Tehran, and Moscow, has led to the establishment of four “de-escalation zones” aimed at reducing clashes in Syria.
Thanks to the decisive support of Russia, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has managed to regain control of the majority of the country after having suffered many setbacks against the rebels and jihadists during the first years of the war unleashed in 2011.
On the day of the Western strikes in Syria, Damascus also announced that it had recaptured all of eastern Ghouta – long a rebel stronghold on the outskirts of Damascus – after the evacuation of thousands of rebels and their families.
The Sana agency reported Tuesday a new agreement to evacuate “a thousand” fighters of the Jaich al-Islam group from Daumier, near Damascus. They will be evacuated in the north of the country, in a rebel zone.
More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions have been thrown on the roads since 2011 in the conflict in Syria which has become more complex over the years with the involvement of foreign countries and jihadist groups in a fragmented territory.