Inspectors haven’t yet been able to access the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria that prompted a U.S.-led coalition to launch airstrikes against suspected Syrian chemical sites on Friday. And the parties involved are trading blame about why.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said that a team of nine inspectors arrived in Damascus on Saturday, after it was invited by Syria and Russia to investigate the apparent chemical attack just over a week ago on on Douma, a suburb of Damascus that has been held by rebels.
The Director-General of the OPCW, Ahmet Üzümcü, told representatives Monday that team members have met with Syrian officials in Damascus.
But they haven’t gotten into Douma, about 11 miles away.
“The Syrian and Russian officials who participated in the preparatory meetings in Damascus have informed the [Fact-Finding Mission] Team that there were still pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place,” Üzümcü said.
It’s worth noting that the international chemical weapons watchdog doesn’t have the mandate to determine who is responsible for the attack, only to ascertain whether a chemical weapon was used. Russia vetoed a U.S.-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution that would have allowed for a wider investigation.
A top Russian diplomat, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, chalked up the delay to a permitting issue. The Associated Press reported that Ryabkov “says the mission wasn’t allowed in because it hadn’t secured the approval of the U.N. Department for Safety and Security.”
However, a U.N. spokesperson told NPR’s Michele Kelemen: “The United Nations has provided the necessary clearances for the OPCW team to go about its work in Douma. We have not denied the team any request for it to go to Douma.”
“Unfettered access essential,” the U.K. delegation to the OPCW said on Twitter. “Russia & Syria must cooperate.”
And the U.S. representative to the OPCW, Kenneth Ward, raised concerns that Russia may have meddled with the site.
“It is our understanding the Russians may have visited the attack site,” Ward said at the OPCW’s meeting on Monday. “We are concerned they may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission to conduct an effective investigation.”
Russia’s Alexander Shulgin said at the meeting that Russian experts had visited the sites of the alleged chemical attacks, and claimed that “no remains of chemical weapons were discovered.” At the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the BBC Monday that he can “guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site.”
The OPCW has stated that it has found credible evidence to support the allegations that chemical weapons were used, which prompted it to deploy this mission. Pro-opposition rescue workers and doctors have said that more than 40 people died in the attack, and doctors said that victims showed symptoms consistent with the use of chlorine gas.
A top Syrian official claimed that the regime is fully cooperating with the inspectors. According to state news agency SANA, Syrian deputy foreign and expatriates minister Fayssal Mikdad said that OPCW inspectors had held “several meetings” with experts and officials, where “Syria emphasized its full readiness to cooperate and provide all necessary facilitations for the fact-finding mission experts to carry out their job.”
Director-General Üzümcü stated that as inspectors wait for permission to enter Douma, Syrian authorities have said they “could interview 22 witnesses who could be brought to Damascus.”
Human rights organizations are criticizing the delay.
OPCW’s investigation “is crucial in uncovering the exact circumstances behind the appalling images that united the world in horror this month,” Sherine Tadros, Head of Amnesty International’s UN Office, said in a statement. “Every day that passes without access makes it harder for them to collect and analyse vital evidence.”