Limited in authority, OPCW finally allowed to collect some evidence — But is it too little, too late?



On Syria, Academic Freedom, and Responsibility
Political WorldView Podcast: Syria Special — Assad’s Chemical Attacks, the US-UK-France Strikes, and What Happens Now

After 18 days, inspectors have finally reached the second chemical attack site in Douma, near Syria’s capital Damascus.

Using helicopters, the Assad regime’s air force struck twice on April 7, first with chlorine and then with chlorine and a stronger agent, according to witnesses and local medical staff and first responders. An estimated 85 people were killed within hours, and hundreds were injured.

The assault succeeded in forcing the surrender of Douma, the last town in the East Ghouta area which had been held by the opposition since 2012. Tens of thousands of people were forcibly removed to northern Syria in the following days.

Russia has prevented the inspectors, from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, from attributing responsibility for the attacks. Both Moscow and the Assad regime delayed any visit by the team while Russian personnel reportedly removed and disturbed evidence and a Russian-led campaign spread disinformation about the mass killing. Inspectors finally reached one of the sites earlier this week.

Despite the possible destruction of much of the evidence, inspectors will try to use environmental samples and biological testing of victims and survivors to establish the nature of the attacks. The material will initially be taken to the OPCW’s laboratory in the Netherlands and then sent to affiliated laboratories for examination.

Continuing its campaign to pre-empt any findings, the Russian delegation to the OPCW will hold a briefing on Thursday in which will present “some Syrians to speak about the reported Douma incident”.

Those Syrians are likely to include medical personnel, who were warned in interrogation by Russian personnel to deny any chemical attacks occurred and then subsequently displayed on Russian State media. The leading outlet Russia 24 has also featured staged interviews with residents, including an 11-year-old boy who was seen crying in hospital on the night of the attacks.

The OPCW criticized the Russians on Wednesday for not allowing inspectors to first speak to the purported witnesses, but said the briefing would proceed.

“The FFM [Fact Finding Mission] will continue to carry out its independent and impartial mission based on interviews with relevant people, its findings from the site visits, analysis of the sample results, as well as any other information and materials collected,” a statement said.

Donors Pledge $4.4 Billion, But Fall Short With US No-Show

International donors pledged $4.4 billion in emergency aid for Syria and its neighbors on Wednesday, but fell short of the UN target for 2018 after the US failed to offer any assistance.

UN officials continued their warnings of a “death trap” and crisis for the displaced, with a possible pro-Assad assault on Idlib Province in northwest Syria, home to about 2.5 million people.

See Syria Daily, April 25: UN Officials — A “Death Trap” Looms For Civilians Amid Likely Pro-Assad Assaults

Jan Egeland, the humanitarian chief for Syria, said:

What I fear is a very cruel battle engulfing Idlib. We cannot accept the war moves towards what is essentially a gigantic refugee camp.

There have to be talks to spare the civilians from the fighting.

Members of the European Union offered most of the money for this year and $3.4 billion for 2019-2020. The total was far less than the $6 billion in 2017.

The Trump Administration has sharply cut its foreign aid commitments. Earlier this month Donald Trump, who has spoken of a full withdrawal of US forces from Syria, ordered the suspension of $200 million for stabilization projects in the north of the country.

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock told a news conference:

A number of important donors have not yet been in a position to confirm their financing for 2018. That includes the United States, which has been providing more than $1 billion a year to Syria and the region in recent years.