Inspectors with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) arrived in Syria on Saturday with plans to visit the site of Monday’s alleged chemical weapons strike in Douma.
The British delegation to the OPCW said on Monday that inspectors have been blocked from visiting Douma by the Russian and Syrian governments.
Russia claimed the delay was necessary because U.S. and allied airstrikes against Syria over the weekend made it impossible to guarantee the safety of the inspectors. The British and American delegations to OPCW did not buy that argument.
The UK representative to OPCW, Peter Wilson, issued a statement on Monday recounting his government’s reasons for believing the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in Douma:
A significant body of information, including intelligence, indicates the Syrian Regime is responsible for this latest attack. Open source accounts allege a barrel bomb was used to deliver the chemicals, and a regime helicopter was seen above Douma on the evening of 7 April. The Opposition does not operate helicopters or use barrel bombs. Reliable intelligence indicates that Syrian military officials coordinated what appears to be the use of chlorine in Douma on 7 April. No other group could have carried out this attack.
Wilson accused Russia and Syria of muddying the waters with “false claims” and outrageous allegations, such as Russia asserting the attack on Douma was “somehow staged or faked” under the direction of the United Kingdom. He concluded that it was time for the OPCW to stand tall and demand full and immediate compliance from Russia and Syria as it carries out its mission:
The choice for members of this Executive Council, and for all States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, is clear. Will we act to defend the Chemical Weapons Convention when its norms are so flagrantly violated by a Syrian Government using chemical weapons against its own people, over and over again?
Syria and its handful of allies continue to obfuscate, filibuster, and lie. 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.
At a press conference on Monday, Wilson said the United Nations cleared OPCW inspectors to proceed to Douma, but Russia and Syria were preventing them from completing their mission. The UK delegation to OPCW stated on Twitter that “unfettered access” to Douma is “essential,” and that “Russia & Syria must cooperate” with the investigation:
#OPCW Director Gen briefs Exec Council on his Fact Finding Mission’s deployment to 🇸🇾 to investigate #Douma chem weapon attack. OPCW arrived in Damascus on Saturday. Russia & Syria have not yet allowed access to Douma. Unfettered access essential. Russia & Syria must cooperate.
— UK Delegation OPCW (@UK_OPCW) April 16, 2018
The American envoy to the OPCW, Ambassador Kenneth Ward, said Russia might be helping the Syrians obscure evidence that the Syrian government carried out the chemical attack.
“It is our understanding the Russians may have visited the attack site,” Ward reportedly said during a closed-door OPCW meeting on Monday. “It is our concern that they may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission to conduct an effective investigation.”
“It is long overdue that this council condemns the Syrian government for its reign of chemical terror and demands international accountability of those responsible for these heinous acts,” Ward added.
“I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded in a BBC interview on Monday.
Lavrov continued to insist that the Douma attack was “staged,” and all evidence to the contrary provided by the United States, Britain, and France is merely hearsay “based on media reports and social media.”
Lavrov implied that Friday night’s airstrikes against Syrian facilities were actually an attempt by the U.S. and its allies to prevent international inspectors from visiting Douma, by making the region too unsafe for inspectors to access the site.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that British accusations that Russia is preventing inspectors from visiting Douma are “groundless,” and insisted Russia has been calling for an “objective investigation” all along.