Limited in scope of investigation by Russia, OPCW team still held up in Damascus
UPDATE 1210 GMT: Russian officals have put out yet another contradictory claim about the April 7 chemical attacks.
Aleksandr Shulgin, Russia’s Ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of the Chemical Weapons, said at the same time that 1) there was no chemical attack at all and 2) that there was a “false-flag attack” orchestrated by UK security services with support from the US.
“We have not just a ‘high level of confidence,’ as our Western partners uniformly put it; we have irrefutable proof that there was no chemical attack in Douma on April 7,” Shulgin said at the meeting of the OPCW’s Executive Council.
He then said, “[This was a] pre-planned false-flag attack by the British security services, which could have also been aided by their allies in Washington.”
Shulgin’s differing accounts clash with a third version, pushed by the Assad regime with help from UK journalist Robert Fisk, that the victims on April 7 were suffering from dust caused by shelling.
The Assad regime and Russia have blocked inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons from reaching the sites of the two chemical attacks on Douma, near Syria’s capital Damascus, on April 7.
The regime’s attacks brought the response of US-UK-French bombing of three military facilities, connected with chemical weapons production, last Saturday.
The OPCW team arrived in Damascus on Saturday, but on Monday Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said that the inspectors were still being refused access to the sites. Regime officials cited “pending security issues to be worked out”.
A “senior Russian official” later said, “Tomorrow the security services of the United Nations…will test the routes. And on Wednesday is when we plan the arrival of the OPCW experts.”
The OPCW team are already barred from ascertaining responsibility for the attacks — carried out by Assad forces, according to local doctors, first responders, residents, and citizen journalists — because of Russia’s restriction of the organization’s mandate last autumn. Russia used its veto in the UN Security Council last week to maintain the ban.
Soon after the April 7 attacks, Russian personnel went into the sites, with local sources saying that evidence was removed or disturbed.
In an OPCW meeting at the Hague on Monday, US representative Kenneth Ward said, “It is our concern that they [Russians] may have tampered with [the sites] with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission to conduct an effective investigation.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insisted that Moscow is not interfering with the investigation: “I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site.”
Report: East Ghouta Residents Forced to Sign Document Not to Protest
The opposition site Nedaa Syria, citing local citizen journalists, says people remaining in East Ghouta near Damascus — overrun by a pro-Assad offensive this spring — are being forced to sign a five-item document which includes a promise not to protest against the Assad regime.
Residents must also not hide those who demonstrate: “I promise not to cause riots, incitement, demonstrations, or to be silent or conceal those who cause it”.
They must also not possess or smuggle weaopns or criticize security personnel, and they must “always work under the institutions of the state for constructing the pride and the strength of the nation”.
As part of the “reconciliation”, residents must give an account of any involvement with opposition groups during Syria’s uprising.
The capitulation agreement, reached between rebels and Russian officials after the April 7 chemical attacks, gives a guarantee of non-prosecution of residents and no forced conscription for six months.
White House: Trump Stills Intends US Troop Withdrawal
The White House said Monday that Donald Trump still intends an early withdrawal for US troops from Syria, despite the President’s endorsement of missile strikes over the Assad regime’s chemical attacks.
“Our policy hasn’t changed,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, following Trump’s remarks in recent weeks that troop should “get out” and his request to Saudi Arabia for $4 billion as the US withdraws.
Sanders pointed to that, as she said Trump is focused on getting countries in the Persian Gulf to pick up the financial and military burden of Syria stabilization. However, she left an escape clause over US personnel by saying that Trump also wants the defeat of the Islamic State, which could rationalize the continued presence of American troops alongside the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the north and east of the country.
Before the latest chemical attacks, the Pentagon had pushed back against Trump’s comments, leaking to the media that the military plans to increase the deployment of troops rather than pull them out.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who said on Sunday that he had persuaded Trump to keep US troops in Syria, refined the statement yesterday.
“I did not say [that France or the US] would remain militarily engaged in Syria in the long term,” Macron said, but he added:
I’m right to say that the United States of America – because it decided to carry out this intervention with us – fully realized that our responsibility went beyond the war on Daesh, and that we also have a humanitarian responsibility on the ground and a long-term responsibility to build peace.